The Falcons don’t look like a playoff team, but they’ve got a shot

The more we watch these Falcons, the less we know. They’ve been outscored by 108 points over 13 games. Last year’s Falcons were outscored by 18 points over 16 games. The 2021 team is 6-7. The 2020 edition was 4-12. Make any sense? No? Buckle up, dear reader. We’ve only just begun.

These Falcons have played four games against teams positioned to make the playoffs. They’re 0-4. The margins of defeat were 23, 40, 25 and 13 points. For tiebreaking purposes, the NFL monitors the winning percentage of the teams you’ve beaten. The Falcons’ strength of victory is .333, the league’s third-lowest. Only the Colts and Bears are worse.

The Falcons haven’t beaten a team that holds a winning record. For the past few weeks, Football Outsiders has ranked them last — 32nd of 32 — in Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA. And not, we note, last by a little. They’re last by a lot.

DVOA assigned No. 31 Houston, which has won twice, a rating of minus-30.2. The Falcons were minus-37.4. (Latest rankings don’t include Sunday’s games.) The Falcons were 31st in offense, 29th in defense, 32nd in special teams. And here we come to the “and yet” part of our program.

And yet: With four games to play, the Falcons hold a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s up from recent weeks, when their chances were measured at zero-point-something. Should they win against San Francisco, they’d stand a 43 percent shot of qualifying for postseason. Should they follow that by beating Detroit the day after Christmas, their odds would swell to 51 percent with two games remaining.

Combined ShapeCaption
NFC South standings as of Dec. 13.

Credit: NFL Network

NFC South standings as of Dec. 13.

Credit: NFL Network

Combined ShapeCaption
NFC South standings as of Dec. 13.

Credit: NFL Network

Credit: NFL Network

To get to 8-7, the Falcons would have to win three games in succession. Only once have they won twice in a row, and that came with a bye between the games. They haven’t been above .500 this season. They’ve won only one “home” game, that coming at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which is in London. In six games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they’ve been outscored by 97 points.

And yet, and yet …

As much as the Falcons might seem like a bad team, they’re more than competitive when they face an opponent of similar modest caliber. They’re 6-3 against sub-.500 teams. They haven’t blown anybody out — their most sizable victory came Sunday, when they beat Carolina 29-21 — but they’ve hung around. Three times they’ve won on field goals at the end.

If ever there was a time to be mediocre, this is it. This is the year of the expanded-by-one schedule and the expanded-by-one postseason. The NFC numbers six winning teams. Seven NFC teams will make the playoffs. The Falcons are among a gaggle of five at 6-7. They hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. They’d lose that tiebreaker to the Eagles and Football Team.

The Falcons have two games remaining against winning teams, though neither the 49ers nor the Bills have been as good as advertised. Both games are on the road, where the Falcons are 5-2. Split those two, beat Detroit here and then beat the Saints again, and this team is 9-8. That could/should be enough to make the wild card round.

This hasn’t been Matt Ryan’s greatest season. Stat-wise, it’s among his worst. He’s 18th in passer rating, 23rd in yards per pass. He’s also the reason the 2021 Falcons aren’t the 2021 Jets/Giants/Jaguars, all of which the Falcons have beaten. Had the under-new-management Falcons opted to dump Ryan and start over, they wouldn’t be 6-7. They’d be 2-11. That would have been better for drafting purposes, but the 2022 class isn’t a-swim with quarterbacks.

We say again: Arthur Smith is coaching the heck out of what he has. He has built a running game from Cordarrelle Patterson, who used to be a wideout, and not much else. For the first time in forever, the Falcons aren’t wasting talent. We eagerly await the moment when, to borrow a phrase from the out-of-his-depth Urban Meyer, the checkers are equal.

These Falcons deserve a goodly measure of respect. Their immediate predecessors were skilled only at blowing leads. The 2020 Falcons were 2-8 in one-score games. This bunch is 6-2. Would it still be a surprise if this team made the playoffs? Yes. And yet: Deep into December, we’ve just spent 700 words discussing that possibility.