The Falcons finished 2011 at 10-6 and earned the fifth seed in the NFC. Atlanta is practically the definition of a darkhorse coming into the postseason. They had an average regular season because they beat most of the teams that they were supposed to, but lost to just about every team that was a real threat.
Atlanta's path to the 2011 playoffs was a strange one to say the least. At midseason, the Falcons had a shot at the NFC South crown, but as the season went on it became more and more apparent that the New Orleans Saints were going to win the division.
At one point, it looked as though the Falcons may miss the playoffs completely. The Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys all looked to be competing for the wild-card spots.
However, one thing happened after another and here we are. The Falcons got into the playoffs somehow and now it is up to them to make the most of the opportunity.
Now, all of this begs the question, who is the most responsible for Atlanta making the playoffs?
Matt Ryan had a good overall season and Michael Turner was one of the top rushers again in 2011. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones played great when he was on the field and veteran Roddy White picked up his play later in the season.
Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton both had amazing years and defensive backs William Moore and Brent Grimes had great campaigns in 2011.
However, despite all of the great performances by certain Falcons players, there is only one who deserves the credit for Atlanta making the playoffs—Jay Cutler.
"This is absolutely ridiculous. How does a quarterback on another team have anything to do with the Falcons' playoff berth?" Is that what you are thinking? Before you completely disregard the rest of this article, let me finish.
As most of us know, Jay Cutler is the quarterback for the Chicago Bears. He and the Bears seemed to be one of the best teams in the NFC at Week 11. Cutler was having a great season and had the Bears at 7-3, leading the race for one of the NFC Wild Card spots.
Cutler ended up getting injured against the San Diego Chargers that week and missed the rest of the 2011 season. The Bears continued on to lose five straight games before winning their season finale and finishing the season at 8-8.
At the time that Cutler went down, the Falcons were 6-4 and had already lost a game to the Bears. Both Detroit and Chicago were ahead of Atlanta and did not seem to be slowing down.
If Cutler never got injured, then the Bears would have likely gone on to a 11- or 12-win season. They would have locked up the fifth seed in the NFC, and that would have left the sixth seed to either the Falcons or Lions.
These two teams did end up with the same record, and the Falcons beat the Lions earlier in the season, which would have given Atlanta the tiebreaker. However, there is no way to tell what would have happened if the Lions would have been fighting for a playoff spot in Week 17 instead of just a different seed.
Who deserves the credit for the Falcons' playoff berth?
It is very possible that the Falcons would have still ended up in the playoffs, but Cutler's injury doomed the Bears and all but secured Atlanta a spot in the postseason.
While Atlanta has played well at times in 2011, there is not one specific player who was just leaps and bounds above everyone else. Some guys stepped up in one game, but then disappeared in the next. Other playmakers were invisible for one half of the season, only to show up later in the year.
The Falcons have talent and definitely earned their way into the playoffs, but it didn't hurt that the Bears were no longer contenders after Week 11.
This is definitely a different way of looking at the Falcons' playoff berth. However, Cutler is the player who deserves the most credit for the Falcons' playoff berth because he basically gave the Falcons a situation that would have been very difficult to mess up.