But here they sit, 4-4 with the hardest part of their schedule behind them. They’re leading the NFC South, which says much about the NFC South, but still: Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay isn’t on top. The Buccaneers have been outscored by five points, same as the Falcons. The team with the GOAT has scored 146 points; the team with Marcus Mariota has scored 200.
ESPN’s football power index estimates that these Falcons will finish a rounded-up 9-8; it assigns them a 53.4% chance of making the playoffs. Sunday’s date with the Chargers is one of two remaining games against teams currently above .500. Oh, and the Falcons are 3-3 in one-score games, which is more than acceptable. It’s also an indication that Smith, if any doubt remained, is a keeper.
The Falcons rank fifth in rushing yards, 29th in passing yards. Conventional wisdom holds that nobody wins by running anymore. But the Titans, with Smith calling plays, went 11-5 in 2020, when they ranked second in rushing and 23rd in passing. Smith doesn’t have the irresistible Derrick Henry here, but he acts as if he does. Having Mariota gives the Falcons an extra running back. Mariota the runner makes Mariota a more effective passer.
The Falcons have this wrinkle. A receiver goes in motion toward the sideline – sometimes the receiver is Kyle Pitts, the gifted tight end – and, after the snap, essentially stands there. He’s not blocking. Nobody’s blocking for him. This isn’t a screen. The unencumbered receiver is Mariota’s bailout. He isn’t great at throwing long, but he’s OK throwing short. If he opts to run instead, that’s fine, too.
Mariota is on track to rush for 600 yards, almost double his career best. Running the ball controls the clock, which limits the opponent’s possessions, which is big. The Falcons’ defense just yielded 478 yards to Carolina and PJ Walker. This team won’t win any shootouts, as evidenced by the Cincinnati blowout. The idea is to have Mariota do what he does well and keep games from becoming blowouts. No, he’s not Joe Burrow. C’est la vie.
With Patterson injured, Tyler Allgeier – a Round 5 pick from BYU – has gained 324 yards. If you can run, you should be able to pass a little, play-action still being the sport’s greatest weapon. Journeyman Damiere Byrd caught five touchdown passes in his first six NFL seasons; working with Mariota, he has caught two in two weeks. The Falcons aren’t a talented team, but they’ve found enough workarounds to resemble one.
I realize I might be in the minority, but here goes: Watching the Falcons fascinates me. Trying to guess what Smith will do next is great fun. I’m not very smart, but I enjoy watching smart people work.