The Atlanta Falcons are 2-6 midway through the 2013 season, and it begs the question of how they should spend the rest of the year. Should the Falcons keep pushing for this year or pack their things and get ready for 2014?
From my perspective, the Falcons should keep playing for 2013.
The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals are the only team to start a season 2-6 and make the playoffs. So if the Falcons can find a way to come back this year, it won't be unprecedented.
After starting 1-6 in that 1970 season, the Bengals won their final seven games to overtake a 7-7 Cleveland Browns team to win the then-AFC Central.
The positive for the Bengals was that after eight games, they were still within two games of the divisional lead. With their loss to Carolina Panthers earlier today, the Falcons now sit three games out from the final Wild Card spot.
Next week, the Falcons will host the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC's top team. If they lose, they will be put in a situation where they would have to do what no other NFL team has done in history: make the playoffs after starting the season 2-7.
So I think it goes beyond making the playoffs as the Falcons look to salvage their season. They will have to look towards goals other than a postseason berth if they are to turn around their season.
The 1997 Falcons started the season 1-7 but managed to rattle off some late wins and finish 7-9. While they did not make the playoffs that year, they were able to build off that momentum and carry it over into 1998, when the Falcons went 14-2 on their way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The Falcons need to be concerned with that precedent rather than any set by a Bengals team more than 40 years ago. Any positive steps the Falcons can show in the second half of this season could help them get beyond where they left off in the 2012 season: the NFC Championship Game.
The Falcons are plagued with issues on both sides of the ball, and they will need to make gains on both sides before such steps can be taken.
First off, the Falcons need to get their ground attack going.
And that really starts up front. It's important that the offensive line starts to jell and make strides in the second half of this year.
The Falcons need to know going into this offseason just how much more work needs to be done up front. They need to know whether or not the investment made in Sam Baker this past offseason was worthwhile, as well as if young starters like Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes have bright futures ahead. The Falcons also need to mix in a young tackle like Ryan Schraeder to see if he has a future.
The unit did show life with a 78-yard effort against the Panthers. If this offensive line is able to create more push on a consistent basis like it showed against Carolina, it will be a positive to build on for the future.
But it also can net this team more wins in this current season due to that balance.
Because as of right now, the Falcons' passing game needs a lot of help.
When Julio Jones went down for the year with a foot injury, the Falcons made a decision to ride with the young receivers already on the roster in Drew Davis, Darius Johnson and Kevin Cone. Through three games, that appears to be a bad decision. The trio's contributions have been sporadic at best.
The Falcons hope to get wide receiver Roddy White back healthy in the coming weeks, which will give them a much-needed offensive boost. But the Falcons need to go out and get a veteran receiver who can win on the outside besides Harry Douglas, the de facto No. 1 receiver in White's absence.
Laurent Robinson and Michael Jenkins are former Falcons who have played with Matt Ryan, and Mike Thomas has played under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Jacksonville. These players aren't going to save the Falcons offense, but they certainly can offer potential upgrades over what the Falcons currently have.
Another change offensively that would help the Falcons is being more aggressive early in games with their play-calling. Because of the team's struggles on defense, this team would benefit from playing with a lead.
In four of their past five games against the Patriots, Jets, Cardinals and Panthers, they have combined to hold a lead for roughly 15 minutes, only 6 percent of those games. Even when you factor the lead they held for the entirety of the matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7, that still only accounts for 75 total minutes out of 300 (25 percent).
The Falcons need to work on building early leads, and that will mean trying to take more measured shots downfield.
In their two wins this year, they combined for nine plays of 20 or more yards. In their two other games where the passing offense had over 300 net yards passing, they combined for 11 more big plays. The past two weeks, they have a combined total of five big plays.
Those numbers need to improve.
But it's going to take better play from their wide receivers, offensive line and quarterback to get that done. Matt Ryan has thrown a combined seven interceptions in his past two games, and too many of them were the result of bad decision-making.
Defensively, the Falcons have to stay aggressive. Their pass rush has been intermittent throughout this year, and it has led to their struggles to get stops on third down. Prior to Sunday, they ranked 30th in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage allowed.
They need to apply more pressure and generate more turnovers. That can help their offense get more opportunities to score.
They appeared to do that against the Panthers. They got into the face of Cam Newton, and it led to a pair of interceptions. The Falcons will have to blitz to get effective pressure on the quarterback since their current defensive line has not gotten the job done.
They should get a boost from the potential return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the coming weeks. Weatherspoon's ability both in coverage and rushing the quarterback should enhance the Falcons' blitzing.
The confidence that the team's young rookie corners are gaining should also help them. With more trust in their ability to be left on islands in man coverage, the Falcons can dial up their pressure packages with more exotic blitzes.
The Falcons are approaching a point in the year where they no longer have the excuse of holding things back. Their season's pulse is thready, and they need a shock to the chest to get the heart racing again.
If that means shaking up their roster or shuffling lineups, then so be it.
If that means playing a different style of offense or defense that calls for more aggressive play, then so be it.
The Falcons are 2-6 . What they've been doing thus far this year clearly is not getting the job done. They have to find something that they can do well for the remainder of this year and build off that.
And right now, there isn't much on either side of the ball that they do well.
After promising performances against Carolina, the running game and offensive line can't regress next week against Seattle or at any point thereafter. And their defense has to find ways to get stops on third downs and bring more heat on the quarterback.
If they can build off those things week by week, then they can find a way to salvage their season. It would mean steady progress over these next eight games. And by year's end, many of the things that they currently consider weaknesses could become strengths.
That may not get them in the playoffs by year's end, but it will certainly be something that they can build off for next year.
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