Whether they cash in is still to be determined.
If nothing else, these 2017 Atlanta Falcons have been entertaining. In a season that followed one of the most excruciating losses in sports history, the Falcons have resided in many different parts of the NFL’s hierarchy, and now find themselves facing three divisional games that will decide if they will have a chance to defend their NFC championship in the playoffs.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Falcons’ mental mistakes and lack of focus had resulted in a frustrating and inconsistent season that looked like it was going to fall short of a playoff run. Since then, however, the Falcons have won four out of five games and are coming off of one of the grittiest wins in recent memory over the New Orleans Saints. They’ll have a full week to try to refocus themselves and attempt to finish out the season in the NFC’s top 6.
How they got here
As any fan can attest, it’s been a whirlwind of a season for the Dirty Birds. After a 3-0 start, the Falcons looked as if they were picking up right where they left off at the end of last season’s NFC Championship game. However, 3 straight ugly losses, including a shameful humiliation in front of a national audience against New England, quickly halted the Falcons’ momentum and pushed them out of the NFC playoff picture.
Since the loss to the Patriots, Atlanta has battled through injuries and won 5 of their last 7, with the offense finally starting to resemble the juggernaut that it was a year ago. The defense has also improved significantly over the past few weeks, and it was largely responsible for Atlanta’s most recent victory over New Orleans.
While both the offense and the defense have made noticeable strides, another thing that the Falcons seem to have begun to correct is their mental mistakes. There were two different interceptions earlier in the season that were taken away because of roughing the passer penalties. There have been no turnovers lost because of penalties since then. Don’t get me wrong, the Falcons still make more mental mistakes than a veteran team should, such as two of the interceptions that Matt Ryan threw against the Saints or the muffed kickoff that gave Seattle a free possession a few weeks ago. However, the Falcons’ attention to detail seems to have started to at least trend in the right direction in recent games.
What they must do to make the playoffs
Well, on paper, the Falcons will likely need to win at least two of their next three games: at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, and a home finale against the Panthers. However, in order to accomplish this goal, there are a few things the Falcons will have to clean up.
Turnovers have been an issue for this team-both committing them and forcing them. Against New Orleans, Matt Ryan threw three interceptions-two that were his fault. Of course, Atlanta sealed the victory with a Deion Jones interception; however, it was their first forced turnover of the game. The previous week in a loss to the Vikings, the Falcons forced no turnovers. Causing only one turnover in two games will not lead Atlanta to a playoff birth.
Health has also been an issue for the Falcons this season. Julio Jones has played in every game, but he clearly has not been at 100%. Devonta Freeman and Desmond Trufant both recently suffered concussions, though both are back in the lineup. Running back Tevin Coleman also suffered a concussion in the win over New Orleans, and his status for Monday’s game in Tampa is up in the air. Guard Andy Levitre is also recovering from a triceps injury. The long week until Monday’s game is certainly coming at an optimal for the Falcons as they try to get their injuries taken care of.
If Atlanta wants to play playoff football in January, they will have to continue to decrease their mental mistakes, force more turnovers, and get back to full health. Their final three games are all in the division, and as history has taught us, anything can happen in divisional games. It’s going to be a stressful three weeks, Falcons fans. Buckle up.