ATLANTA -- It hasn’t always been pretty this season. Sometimes, the statistics have looked dreadful. But in the middling NFC, where few teams outside the top four have shown much consistency in 2021, the Atlanta Falcons are still potentially a playoff team.
Not necessarily a good shot to be a playoff team -- the FPI gives Atlanta a whopping 3.3% chance to reach the postseason -- but the Falcons, with a little over a month left in the season, remain at least somewhat in the conversation at 5-7.
“Sure,” coach Arthur Smith said. “Still in the mix.”
For them to actually contend for the postseason, though, the Falcons are going to need more sustainability from their offense. Particularly, the offense being able to find a way into the end zone.
It’s a problem that has vexed the Falcons the past month.
“I don’t know,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think we’ve done some good things, for sure. But we’ve got to get back to work. We’ve got to find the answer to that so that, in our stretch of the last five games of the year of the regular season, we’ve got to find a way to be better.
“If we had the answer, we’d change it immediately. But we’ve got to find a way to do it.”
A lot of that starts in the red zone. In five wins, Atlanta has scored 14 total touchdowns and 13 of its 19 red zone drives have ended in the end zone. In seven losses, the Falcons have scored nine total touchdowns and reached the end zone on just eight of 17 red zone drives.
In three of the last four games, Atlanta has faced likely playoff teams in Dallas, New England and Tampa Bay. The Falcons scored one offensive touchdown across those games -- on the first series of Sunday’s loss against the Buccaneers.
The Falcons haven’t scored more than one offensive touchdown in a loss since Oct. 3 against Washington. Before Sunday against Tampa Bay, where Atlanta showed improvement in gaining 380 yards, the Falcons had gained fewer than 214 yards in their three prior losses to Dallas, New England and Carolina, which the team faces again Sunday in Charlotte (1 p.m. ET, Fox) in almost a must-win for any playoff hopes.
Atlanta has the fourth-worst point differential in the league -- minus-116, ahead of only the Texans, Jaguars and Jets -- and their minus-16 touchdown differential is tied with the Jets for the second-worst in the league, ahead of only Houston’s minus-21.
Yes, the Falcons were short-handed in six quarters of blowout losses to Dallas and New England without their most valuable offensive player, Cordarrelle Patterson, but that type of production is not going to win many games against teams in the middle of the league or better.
“Honestly, you think we come out, we wake up in the morning saying we want to score less touchdowns,” Patterson said Sunday. “That’s what I’m saying. I’m just saying, man, it’s football, man. S--- happens. You got to be a man about it.
“You’ve got to live up to the expectations and sometimes it don’t. That’s one of the best teams in the NFL, man, and we’re a good team, too.”
And that’s the tricky thing about expectations. Before the season, the Falcons being around .500 was about as good as most people outside of the organization expected. A combination of salary cap constraints combined with a lack of depth behind their top-end talent meant a successful season was already balancing on a thinner-than-normal tightrope. And that was before losing Calvin Ridley for the majority of the season due to personal issues, their best edge rusher, Dante Fowler Jr., for three games with an injury and Russell Gage, the team’s second-best receiver, for three games with an ankle injury.
The Falcons haven’t beaten a team currently over-.500 this season as the Giants, Jets, Saints, Jaguars and Dolphins have a combined 20-41 record. Four of those teams -- all but the Dolphins -- are in last place in their division.
And despite the lack of scoring, there has been progress. A stagnant run game has been successful the last two weeks, gaining over 100 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 2 and 3 of the 2020 season. Ryan had his best passing day in a month against the Bucs, throwing for 297 yards and no interceptions (but also no touchdowns). Smith said Sunday he believes his team has improved, pointing specifically to a run game found.
So there are signs of progress there, but the offense needs to find a way to actually finish. Fast.
“It’s still right in front of us, honestly,” Patterson said. “We just have to find it again. We deserve to be where we are because we did it to ourselves, honestly.
“So we are going to put up and shut up and we’ve got five games to prove that.”