Most analysts start warming up their "must-win game" machine a little later in the season than the halfway point. Me, I like to break down the standings after each week, evaluating every individual win and loss in terms of how it affects the playoff race.
Because, in case you haven't noticed, Kornheiser , the season is just 16 games long. What happens now (and even what happened back in Week Three) can change the outcome of the campaign, Wilbon . Dealing a loss to a intradivision rival, an interdivision rival, or even the opposite conference's doormat can pay dividends, Ditka .
Every game is critical, Tirico . You better believe I'm calling you out, you cliche champion, you. I had about enough of his odd-shaped head before the first pregame commercial break last night.
Which brings me to the impetus for this article: My Falcons are now in a tough spot. I didn't expect them to win their MNF showdown last night with the awesome (much cred!) New Orleans Saints, but they are undoubtedly in a hole now.
I wouldn't want you to have to go to ESPN.com and do all the work yourself, so let me simplify the NFC playoff picture heading into Week Nine:
- The Saints, Vikings, and Cardinals lead their divisions, and I'm not terribly concerned about any of them. N.O. and Minny look like they'll clash in the conference championship, and the West is garbage.
- The NFC East currently has three teams in playoff position: The reemerged Cowboys, the bounce-back Eagles, and the clawing Giants.
- Below that, there's the third tier, which includes the Packers and Bears but the best of whom is clearly Atlanta. Still, with just six postseason spots, the Dirty Birds are the odd one out...
And so it comes down to it: How do the Falcons fight back into the upper echelon of the conference? There's a few different scenarios I could see playing out, but first, a couple assumptions. Yeah, I know what they "make out of you and me":
- Dallas is going to make it, either via the division title or one of the wilds. That makes the concerns in that division the two teams we have games left against.
- Chicago will at best tie our record, in which case our head-to-head advantage will give us the nod, and Green Bay will suffer playing four of its last six on the road, not to mention seeing the 'Boys and Ravens come to Lambeau.
Overtake the Slipping Giants
It's the most obvious path, though not necessarily the most likely. N.Y. gets to play a lot of games at home down the stretch (though they do go to Denver and Minnesota) and still have their bye coming to catch a few winks.
In terms of what's going wrong with this team that's lost three straight, including the embarrassing crushing from Philly, I'm not really qualified to say. I study Atlanta football, dude, and just watch the rest. But if I had to pass some sort of judgment, I'd toss a wary glance towards their secondary and then mumble something about Eli Manning's consistency.
Thing is, of course, they're not a bad team. They're certainly playoff-caliber and partway into October were 5-0. For every "down" for Peyton's lil' bro, there's a big "up," that running game still is potent, and the D-line can take over a game.
Obviously, the Week 11, Nov. 22 trip up to the Big Apple is of supreme interest to Dirty Bird people like me. Who knows what teams we'll see on the field that day...
What, you want an actual prediction?
With a gun to my head, I'd say the G-Men are still struggling, while we've pulled ourselves up. But it's entirely possible the tables will be turned.
Fly Higher than the Eagles
I picked 'em for the NFC Championship back in August. They made me look stupid when Donovan McNabb went down, then even stupider when they baffled in Oakland, then maybe less-than-dumb this past Sunday.
The skill position talent is there in spades, but their O-line was just bad-mouthed (them's fightin' words, Tom Jackson). Even worse (or better, if you're talkin' to me), their schedule is the toughest of our competitors, Pack and Bears included: They've got both games with Dallas to go; trips to San Diego, Chicago, and the Giants; and the Broncos coming to town.
Never before have I had so many favorite teams added to my list at once!
But seriously, I doubt Michael Vick's return to Atlanta on Dec. 6 will be the story when the Brothers that Love come down here. Not to sound like a certain guy—first name Mike—that I bashed earlier, but it's going to be a battle with a lot on the line.
Home-dome advantage, as always, will help, and as long as we key in on DeSean Jackson and make some other receiver beat us, I like our chances.
Get Shot Down
Writing this goes against my typical vibe, but it's a possibility I can't ignore, and something that became much more real last night. Once again, not because I expected us to beat the Saints; more like because I just don't like to think about this sort of disappointment unless I have to.
The Giants could return to form, and they wouldn't even have to do it right away. They'd want to beat us, but they could probably drop the game to the Chargers, rest up and get their minds right, and come back with a vengeance.
The Eagles could be all they can be, as McNabb could have a great second half as he did in '08 and Brian Westbrook could stay healthy. They might lose when they go to Cowboys Stadium, but otherwise, everything is winnable.
Or, we could even see our heroes defeated by the Bears or Packers. Chicago has their two games against the Vikes left, but beyond that, there's just a trip to Baltimore. And GB has the 'Boys at home at Pittsburgh on the road, but little guaranteed trouble.
Thinking about the remainder of our campaign—because when it comes down to it, a team is always "in control of its own destiny" (thanks again, Tirico!)—I see a 6-3 finish. We can split or sweep the remaining two against the AFC East, go 2-1 versus the NFC East, and 3-1 in division.
Will a 10-6 mark be good enough for the playoffs? It'll be good enough for a tie in the Wild Card. But will we have the head-to-head edge with whomever shares our spot?
Oh, the speculation...