I underestimated the Falcons, who have a real shot at playoffs

The Falcons haven’t made me eat crow yet, but I’ve already picked out the seasoning. The projected season win total for the Falcons was 4 ½ or 5 games, depending on the sportsbook. I picked the under. The Falcons are 4-4 and lead the NFC South.

The Falcons will finish with more than four victories. Heck, they have a realistic shot of making the playoffs. The Falcons have the NFL’s second-easiest remaining schedule, as measured by both opponent winning percentage and the advanced metrics at Football Outsiders. FiveThirtyEight.com’s forecast gives them a 45% chance of making the postseason. That’s the same probability as the Bucs, who were the heavy preseason favorites to win the South.

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Those aren’t funny numbers. The Falcons are playoff contenders after I predicted they would compete for the No. 1 draft pick. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong. What’s weird is that many of the reasons I believed the Falcons would be bad have come to fruition, and yet the Falcons are not bad. They’ve managed to be better than their parts suggest.

When that happens, it’s usually because of quarterback play and coaching. That checks out for the Falcons. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and coach Arthur Smith make a good team. Mariota’s lack of passing accuracy is offset by his running ability and savvy. Smith’s team gave in too easily when things went bad in Year 1. This year the Falcons find a way to stay in games after they seem finished.

Good luck in close games isn’t the reason the Falcons are beating external expectations. The 2021 Falcons won seven of nine games that were decided by a margin of eight points or less. I figured they’d regress in that area, and they have. The Falcons are 3-3 in such games this season.

It was hard to believe last season’s Falcons were for real because they were outscored by 146 points on the season. It’s easier to believe the 2022 Falcons are legitimate because they’ve been 50/50 in close games and have a point differential (minus-5) that matches their record. The Falcons are a decent team. This is a season when that might be good enough for a playoff berth in the NFC.

Yes, the Falcons got lucky to beat the Panthers on Sunday. Chances are the Panthers kick an extra point to win the game if D.J. Moore keeps his helmet on after scoring (though that was no sure thing since kicker Eddy Piñeiro missed a shorter kick in overtime). But Moore’s TD was lucky, too. There aren’t many longer shots than P.J. Walker throwing the ball about 70 yards in the air on a dime.

The Falcons were in position to take advantage of Moore’s mistake because they had scored on four consecutive possessions in regulation. That wasn’t luck. It was the Falcons marching for three consecutive scoring drives against a good defense, then stopping Carolina on downs to set up a field goal. The Falcons just keep coming at their opponents, making mistakes along the way, but almost always giving themselves a chance in the end.

Besides, if we’re talking about luck, then we must note the Falcons’ misfortune with injuries. Cordarrelle Patterson, the best part of their run-heavy offense, has played half the games. Top cover cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Jaylinn Hawkins missed the Carolina game because of injuries. The second-best cover man, Casey Hayward, has missed the past two games.

Without Patterson, the Falcons have averaged 148 yards per game and 4.3 per carry with three touchdowns. Those are good numbers considering the main ballcarriers have been Caleb Huntley (undrafted in 2021) and rookie Tyler Allgeier (fifth round). It helps that Mariota is averaging 8 yards per run.

The Falcons’ secondary hasn’t held up well through the attrition. The Bengals and Panthers made hay with catch-and-runs and throws over the top. For the season, the Falcons rank next-to-last in net yards per passing attempt allowed. But they’ve been pretty good at stopping the run, especially in the red zone, and are tied for 10th with 11 takeaways.

Credit to Mariota for carrying the offense. He ranks sixth in Total QBR and ninth in Football Outsiders’ per-play efficiency metric compared with 23rd and 20th for Matt Ryan in 2021. Mariota has been helped by an offensive line that’s developed a physical identity in the run game. The Falcons’ young skill players are pulling their weight.

General manager Terry Fontenot did a good job filling roster holes on the cheap. Smith and his staff are getting the most out of the player talent on hand. As play-caller, Smith has fashioned an offense that is nontraditional for today’s NFL. He’s gone all-in with the run-first attitude, taking advantage of Mariota’s mobility and limiting exposure for the shaky pass protection.

I understand why there’s skepticism about whether the Falcons can keep winning. They have an offense that doesn’t threaten often with deep passes and a defense that gives up too many of them. But help is on the way. Patterson (knee) is set to return soon. He’ll provide explosive runs. Terrell (hamstring) and Hawkins (concussion) will be back eventually. They’ll help stop the bleeding in the secondary.

The Falcons are building something good. They’ll have more ways to improve the roster after this season. There will be a lot of salary-cap space for signing free agents or absorbing contracts in trades. The Falcons added to their stash of draft picks by trading suspended wide receiver Calvin Ridley to the Jaguars before Tuesday’s deadline. They’ll get a 2023 fifth-round pick and a conditional 2024 pick that reportedly could be as high as in the second round.

All that comes later. Right now the Falcons are trying to win the South in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. Some of that is because both the Bucs and Saints are worse than expected. I didn’t see that coming. But I also underestimated the Falcons.