Determined Falcons eye winnable NFC South

The Falcons looked closer to the No. 1 pick in the draft than a playoff team following a 22-21 Week 8 loss to the Lions in London. However, the now 3-6 Falcons are still very much in the mix after a 27-17 victory over Tampa Bay. New Orleans tops the division at 4-6 and Carolina sits above the Falcons at 3-6-1. A Falcons win over the Panthers on Sunday would drop Carolina to 3-6-1 and if the Saints fall to Cincinnati this weekend, Atlanta would actually grab a share of the division lead. It is rare for a team to make the playoffs with a .500 record but it appears that this year’s NFC South champion will hover right around 8-8 entering the playoffs.

Twenty times in NFL history has a team has dropped three games below .500 and still made the playoffs but the Falcons would be defying even greater odds. With a 2-6 record that saw a five-game losing streak before last Sunday’s win, Atlanta had plummeted four games under .500. The 2008 Chargers were one of just three teams to fall four games below .500 and still make the playoffs and it was not the first time San Diego accomplished that type of midseason magic.

In 1992, San Diego started the season 0-4 and actually became the first team in NFL history to start a season winless through four games and still make the postseason. Like the Falcons during their dreadful five-game losing streak, nothing seemed to work for the Chargers. San Diego scored 29 total points in its first four games but got one win and caught fire, finishing the season winning 11 of its final 12 games. If the Chargers can do it, there is no reason the Falcons can’t come out on top of the struggling NFC South this season.


All offseason, the Falcons addressed becoming a tougher football team this year. A label of being a ‘soft’ team was placed on the Falcons during last year’s uncharacteristic 4-12 finish. HBO’s Hard Knocks this summer and offseason coaching changes on the offensive and defensive lines were aimed to help the cause. Despite the efforts for change, the situation the Falcons are currently in gives the organization an opportunity to show toughness better than anything the team went through in the offseason following last year’s let down.

Atlanta has lost five starters for the season from the offensive line, the defense has battled through injuries all year and Jake Matthews is anchoring the left tackle position while battling a badly-sprained ankle. Overcoming this level adversity and finding a spot in the playoffs would warrant a new label of being a tough football team. It will be a challenge with games against Arizona, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Green Bay left on the schedule but this is a chance to etch the Falcons in the historybooks as one of the most improbable runs to the playoffs in NFL history.


Before we get ahead of ourselves, Coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have made it clear that it is a one game at a time mentality the rest of this season. Attacking a Panthers team that has not won a football game since Oct. 5 is the next step Atlanta must take to continue a midseason turnaround. The Falcons defense has struggled this season but the same could be said about what used to be one of the best rushing attacks in Carolina. The trio of Cam Newton, DeAngeloWilliams and Jonathan Stewart has combined for just six rushing scores this season and a 3.6 yards per carry average. Carolina is 25th inthe NFL in points per game and has been held under 21 points six times this season.

Newton has been successful against Atlanta during his pro career and even stamped the NFC South title on Atlanta’s turf last December. This year, however, Newton has thrown 10 touchdowns with eight interceptions. His 306 yards passing last week in Carolina’s 45-21 loss to Philadelphia was the first time this season that Newton eclipsed 300 yards but it wasalso matched with a season-high three interceptions. Carolina still has Minnesota and 1-7 Tampa Bay on the schedule and that could keep them in the division race.


Dwight Lowery was a free agent signing this offseason that flew under the radar with big-name newcomers like Devin Hester, TysonJackson, Paul Soliai and Jake Matthews making their Falcons debuts. However, Lowery has proven to be a valuable piece to the secondary. Atlanta was lacking a veteran presence in the middle of the field and in the secondary with injuries and Lowery has stepped up in that role. Lowery has started all nine games, while recording 43 tackles, four passes defensed, a fumble recovery and the crucial pick to help secure the Falcons win over Tampa last Sunday.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be a telling time of whether or not I’m ever going to play football again,’ “ said Lowery about his opportunity with the Falcons. “I prepared likeI was going to play again and when I got the opportunity, I was ready.”

Atlanta’s defense was on pace to set franchise records for most yards allowed in a season but there have been subtle improvements in recent weeks. In fact, Carolina’s defense,which was second-best in the NFL last season, has given up more yards and points than the Falcons this season.


One of the biggest disappointments through the first half of the season was Atlanta’s offensive struggles and we are still waiting for the pieces to click. The offensive line is starting to come together and the running game looks much better with Steven Jackson finding success early in games and Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers filling in as a relief role. Jackson’s 81 yards rushing last week were three yards shy of his highest total in a Falcons uniform and it seems the limited touches in the first half of the season has kept the 31-year-old fresh as the team enters Week 11.


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