I tried, failed to make good case for Falcons going to playoffs

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan confers with head coach Arthur Smith as they prepare to play the Cleveland Browns in the final exhibition game of the preseason Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan confers with head coach Arthur Smith as they prepare to play the Cleveland Browns in the final exhibition game of the preseason Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

I want to give the Falcons every benefit of the doubt. That’s what I do for the local teams before they’ve played games. It’s usually an easy lift for the NFL team. No league does more to make worst-to-first possible.

It’s in that spirit that I tried to make a strong case for the Falcons returning to the playoffs. I just couldn’t get there. The Falcons have undershot expectations for years. There aren’t enough good reasons to expect that to change now.

There’s hope that a new coaching staff can make a dramatic, immediate difference. Head man Arthur Smith, a respected play-caller, will run the offense. It says something that longtime NFL coach Dean Pees came out of retirement to run Smith’s defense.

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But those two can only work with what they’ve got. The Falcons have less talent now than they’ve had in years. Coaching and player development only go so far. To be more than fringe playoff contenders, the Falcons need another offseason cycle of talent acquisition (this time with real cap space).

The Falcons will have to play over their heads to make the playoffs this season. Winning the division is out of the question. The Bucs won the last Super Bowl and have pretty much the same roster. There’s no point in hoping that Tom Brady suddenly declines.

At least Drew Brees is gone. The Saints still have plenty of good players. They’ll chase one of three NFC wild cards. Another one likely goes to the second-place team in the East, Dallas or Washington That would leave the Falcons among a group of hopefuls scrapping for the last wild card.

Beating expectations would be a change for the Falcons. Before the 2017 season, oddsmakers set the over/under wins for the Falcons at 9-1/2. They went 10-6. The bar was lowered for them in each of the last three seasons. They couldn’t clear it.

In 2018, the Falcons’ over/under was 9½. They won seven games. In 2019, the over/under was 8½. They won seven games again. Last season the over/under was 7½. The Falcons finished 4-12.

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This season the Falcons’ over/under is 7½. I’m not seeing eight wins, the minimum necessary for a real shot at the postseason. The Bucs are two levels above the Falcons. The Saints are a notch better. The Panthers and Falcons are eye-to-eye.

I keep hearing that the Falcons have an easy schedule. Maybe so, but it’s not as they’re the kind of team that can pencil in wins. Also, forget about last season’s records. I prefer more forward-looking ways to evaluate schedules.

Playoff odds are one way to do it. Bookmakers give the Falcons roughly 2-1 odds to make the postseason. They’ll play seven games against opponents with longer playoff odds. That leaves 10 games against teams with a better chance of making the playoffs, per the betting markets.

Bookmakers set the implied playoff odds for the Falcons at about 34%. That’s too high, according to FiveThirtyEight. Its statistical forecast gives the Falcons a 30% chance of making the postseason. ESPN’s Football Power Index is even more pessimistic. It says the Falcons have a 22% chance to make the playoffs.

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Atlanta Falcons will play 17 games in the 2021 NFL season.

Some optimistic projections for the Falcons contend they weren’t as bad as their record last season. They had a minus-18 point differential in 2020. That was just seven points worse than the Browns. Cleveland won 11 games before losing in the divisional round by one score at Kansas City.

It’s obvious why the Falcons didn’t win as many games as their point differential suggested. They were historically bad at closing out games. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell reports that 107 teams since 1989 have finished had a point differential between minus-32 and minus-1. They won an average of 7-1/2 games. The 2020 Falcons are the only one from the group to win four games or less.

Maybe the Falcons will win more close games with Smith. It’s his first head coaching job. Soon we’ll see if he’s a sharper game manager than Dan Quinn. Winning close games requires good luck, but less of it if the coach correctly plays the percentages.

Smith has a plan for the Falcons. His first official depth chart notably lists two tight ends as starters. The Falcons want to run the ball wide. They want to set up play-action passes with quarterback bootlegs.

Explore5 keys to Falcons' 2021 season

Matt Ryan has done that before. There’s no reason to think he can’t still do it. The wide receiver group is deep. The offensive line is a big question mark for the third year in a row. As always, it will be tough for the Falcons to score if they can’t block.

It’s been even longer since the Falcons have played good defense. Pees has a plan, too. He’s made it work at three different NFL stops. The Falcons have some young, promising defenders. There’s room to grow.

The Falcons could overachieve. It’s the NFL. Parity is enforced by rule. Injuries are always a factor. The Falcons can catch some opponents at the right time. Maybe they get some favorable weather to play their brand of football.

It’s easy to get carried away with optimism before the Falcons have played a game. I nearly talked myself into liking them more. There are better reasons for that than counting on an easy schedule or more wins in close games. There just aren’t enough to make me believe the Falcons will make the playoffs.

It’s hard to expect the Falcons to overachieve when they haven’t done it in so long. They’ve lost more than they won with better players. It’s possible they have a better coaching staff now. If so, sounds like a wash. The status quo for the Falcons is another losing campaign.

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