As much as the Atlanta Falcons don't want to compare this year to last, they certainly would love to duplicate how they finished the 2016 regular season.
Not only did the Falcons end '16 on a four-game winning streak to earn the No. 2 playoff seed, they also racked up plenty of points in the process -- 154, to be exact. That's an average of 38.5 points per game, which was even higher than the league-leading 33.8 points they averaged all of last season.
Fast forward to now and the Falcons have three games remaining following last Thursday's 20-17 win against the rival New Orleans Saints. They're averaging just 22.6 points per game and are 0-5 when they fail to score 20 points. In contrast, the Falcons are 8-0 when they score 20 or more points and are one of four teams to be undefeated in such a scenario, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The other three are the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0), Tennessee Titans (7-0), and Oakland Raiders (6-0) -- teams not on the Falcons' schedule to end the season.
It's no secret the offense hasn't flowed as smoothly under first year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Some regression was expected following the transition from last season's coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who now coaches the San Francisco 49ers. And reigning MVP Matt Ryan would be the first to say he hasn't played at an MVP level. But the 8-5 Falcons can put those woes behind and continue their playoff push with a strong offensive finish at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, and in the home finale against Carolina.
Scoring against the Buccaneers wasn't much of a problem a few weeks ago in the Falcons' 34-20 home triumph. They converted two of their three trips to the red zone and Julio Jones had his only multi-touchdown game of the season, exploding for a season-high 253 receiving yards. The Bucs didn't make many adjustments, if any, to slow down Jones, so one would expect a different approach come Monday night. However, the Falcons could benefit from the Buccaneers likely being without menacing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who suffered a biceps injury. The Buccaneers, on a three-game losing streak that has seen them allow 28 points per game, have allowed an average of 24 points per game.
Can Ryan and the offense put up 30 on the Saints and Panthers? They did in the final two games of last season with 33-16 win at Carolina and a 38-32 home win against New Orleans. This season, the Falcons managed just 17 points in a loss to the Panthers and those aforementioned 20 points in last week's win against the Saints. Carolina and New Orleans both surrender 20.2 points per game, which is tied for 10th in the league and right behind the Falcons' defense, which is ninth in surrendering 20.1 points per game.
Of course, there are factors to consider such as health, with running back Tevin Coleman and his team-leading seven touchdowns possibly not being available against the Buccaneers because of a concussion, and starting left guard Andy Levitre's status still uncertain because of a triceps injury. But the Falcons have enough weapons to put up points, if they execute.
"As always, I want to score every time we get the ball to put us in the best position to win games," Sarkisian said recently. "We've been an explosive offense, but I think the biggest thing here for us closing this season out with some big games ahead of us is our ability to score touchdowns. I think that's going to be a real difference in how this season closes out offensively for us."