'Unique opportunity': Falcons tied for first in a completely under-.500 NFC South

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Rashaan Evans doesn’t shy away from it. The Atlanta Falcons linebacker has looked at his team’s positioning right now and where it might have been had one or two things gone differently.

This is in the visitors locker room, moments after the Falcons lost to Cincinnati last Sunday. He’s asked about how, despite a 35-17 loss, the Falcons were still tied for first place in the NFC South with Tampa Bay at 3-4. How they were still very much alive for everything despite hovering around .500 but never above it most of the season.

That’s where the chances missed and opportunities flitted away come up. A 16-point second-half lead lost against New Orleans. The roughing the passer call against Grady Jarrett against Tampa Bay. Falling behind 28-3 against the Los Angeles Rams before coming back.

“Most definitely. You think about the different situations you’ve been in,” Evans said. “You think about the opportunities you had, games that you know you feel like should have won that you didn’t win. They go through your head.”

But he doesn’t let them linger. There’s always another opponent to play. This season for the Falcons, there’s not much reason to dwell.

Depending what happens on Thursday night when the Buccaneers play the Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta might enter the weekend alone in first place. Welcome to the wackiness of the NFC South, the latest division to be the jumbled-up mess in the middle of this NFL season.

It’s a division that has already had a coach fired (Matt Rhule, Carolina), two teams that have started multiple quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield and PJ Walker in Carolina and Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton in New Orleans) and is grouped all within one game of one another.

The only other times this has happened through Week 7 since the move to four divisions in 2002 came in 2020, when Philadelphia led the NFC East with a 2-4-1 record and 2015, when 3-4 Indianapolis led the AFC South. Washington won NFC East in 2020 at 7-9. Houston won AFC South in 2015 at 9-7. Three times, a team has won a division with a losing mark -- Washington in 2020, Carolina in 2014 at 7-8-1 and Seattle in 2010 at 7-9.

It has given Atlanta -- a team predicted by many before the season to be among the worst, if not the worst, team in the NFL -- a real chance at playoff contention despite an inconsistent, yet still surprising, start.

“The whole goal is to keep improving and we’re lucky ,” second-year coach Arthur Smith said. “Some years you’re right, you get down and a team is running away with your division at 6-1 but luckily, we’re all in this pack right here.

“It’s a unique opportunity for sure. But that’s the reality of it. You’ve got to be aware of it and it also gives you perspective.”

Smith said he has addressed the divisional opponent nature of games -- the quickest path to the postseason -- with his team. Facing Carolina on Sunday, and again less than two weeks later, is a chance to create an advantage against at least one other team.

Atlanta has been competitive by having a clear plan for how it wants to play. Run the ball as much as possible -- the Falcons are No. 4 in the NFL in rushing (1,098 yards), No. 3 in rushing attempts (231) and No. 2 in the league in converting third downs by rushing (53.8%). Be smart in situational football offensively -- they’ve converted 44.2% on third down and have scored touchdowns in the red zone 68.2% of the time.

On defense, allowing yards is OK as long as those yards don’t necessarily end with touchdowns. Last Sunday against Cincinnati was the first time since Week 2 the Falcons have given up more than 23 points. The Falcons are averaging 24.43 points allowed -- but only a -1.14 point margin per game, No. 17 in the NFL, essentially saying Atlanta is playing every team it faces pretty evenly.

The Falcons are struggling on third-down defense -- an NFL-worst 48.3% of the time teams convert on them. They are No. 24 in points allowed per game. In the red zone, Atlanta is No. 21 in efficiency, allowing touchdowns 59.3% of the time.

All that matters to defensive coordinator Dean Pees is “points.” As in did the Falcons allow points? He looked to Atlanta’s win over San Francisco. Yes, the Falcons gave up a lot of yards in the second half, but they didn’t let the 49ers score. And each of those drives ate up a lot of time, perhaps the best type of defense possible when you have a lead.

“I really couldn’t care where we end up in total yardage at the end of the year. Couldn’t care less,” Pees said. “What I want to be is good in the red zone, good on third down, good in takeaways and good in score. Those are the important facts because if you’re good in the red zone, you’re probably pretty good in the score. If you’re good in the score, means you’re winning a lot of games.”

Mostly, the Falcons have been average. Average in record, in points scored and points allowed. Average is better than where many expected Atlanta to be this season. Average might be enough as the Falcons sit at the top of a struggling division, the only one where no team is at .500 or better.

So despite the record, one thing is clear for Atlanta. It still very much has a chance, despite having not been over .500 at any point this year -- or any point since the end of the 2017 season, when the 10-6 Falcons made the postseason as a wild-card team.

This season has not looked like that, but Atlanta is still in an OK place.

“We still in a good position. We still got opportunity to be able to run away with this thing,” Evans said. “But the main thing is to make sure you run away with it when you have the opportunity."