Bradley’s Buzz: For the Falcons’ Arthur Smith, is it now playoffs-or-bust?

Coach Arthur Smith and owner Arthur Blank after the Falcons' 29-10 victory over the Colts.

Credit: AP photo/John Bazemore

Credit: AP photo/John Bazemore

Coach Arthur Smith and owner Arthur Blank after the Falcons' 29-10 victory over the Colts.

There’s a part of me – the stubborn part, which some might describe as the stupid part – that still sees the Falcons making the playoffs. If they do, they’ll go as NFC South champs, which would mean a Round 1 home game, which would pair them against fading Philadelphia, which …

Hear that? It’s a knock on the door. It’s reality paying a house call. Reality says, “No way the Falcons are getting in.”

Fact: The Falcons are 7-9 against the league’s meekest schedule. Fact: Of their past seven losses, none came against a team that’s above .500. Fact: They’ve changed quarterbacks three times, and the one they’re on – Taylor Heinicke – presided over losses to Arizona and Chicago.

Nobody deserves to win this division, though somebody will. Tampa Bay left the door ajar by getting thumped by New Orleans, which had just been thumped by the Rams. Having lost three of four and six of nine, the Falcons have done almost everything possible to bar themselves from postseason. That “almost,” however, is mighty.

If the Falcons win Sunday in NOLA, they’ll need only one other result to break their way. They’ll need the NFL’s worst team to win.

Before you say, “The Bucs won’t lose to Carolina,” note that the Falcons managed to lose to Carolina. Also: The Bucs just lost at home to the Saints. Also: Baker Mayfield has sore ribs. Also: The Saints aren’t any good, either. Also: Alvin Kamara has an iffy ankle

So: Though the odds are against it – ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Falcons a 10.4 percent chance to win the South; the New York Times’ Playoff Machine offers a robust 17 percent – it can happen. If you’re a Falcons fan, should you want it to happen?

Nobody knows what Arthur Blank will do, though his description of the season as “mixed” in that interview with Jeff Hullinger remains a leading indicator. Win or lose Sunday, Arthur Smith’s third regular season will be a third consecutive losing season. After two 7-10 years and three years of building, would 8-9 suffice?

But what if 8-9 yields – as it did for last year’s NFC South winner, which had Tom Brady going for it – a division title? What if the Falcons, granted their home game, upset Philly, which has seen its defense fall to pieces? (The Eagles have yielded 401 points, fourth-highest among NFL teams; Carolina has yielded 407.)

The guess is that 8-9 with a division title, awful though this division is, would render Smith safe if not sound. The guess is that 8-9 without a division title would lead Blank to deem Smith’s stewardship a failure – three losing seasons despite three top 10 draft picks, none of which were spent on a quarterback, and the third losing season came after an expensive dip into free agency.

Were Smith to return for Year 4, he’ll need a better quarterback than Desmond Ridder. There’s risk inherent in every QB, with a Round 3 draftee carrying more risk than Trevor Lawrence or C.J. Stroud. (Though Zach Wilson, taken one pick after Lawrence, and Bryce Young, taken one pick ahead of Stroud, haven’t been smash hits.) Still, Smith – after a year’s deliberation – chose to roll with Ridder.

It wasn’t a sagacious choice. Coaches get fired for such choices.

That said, Blank granted Smith’s predecessor the benefit of every doubt. Just off a 7-10 season, the Falcons fired all three coordinators on New Year’s Eve 2018. Next came another 7-10 season, which still wasn’t enough for Blank to dislodge Dan Quinn. It took an 0-5 start in 2020 for that, finally and mercifully, to happen.

One difference: The dump-the-coordinators ploy won’t work this time, Smith essentially being his own OC. Another: Quinn took Blank to a Super Bowl; Smith has taken this team nowhere – though that, even at this late date, could change. If the Falcons win Sunday and Tampa Bay loses, Smith will have a playoff game to work.

I’m not sure he’d deserve it, but it’s Smith’s good fortune to work in the NFC South. It’s a place where, borrowing Clint Eastwood’s line from “Unforgiven,” deserve has nothing to do with it.

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