The Atlanta Falcons may have just suffered a tough loss to NFC South rival New Orleans, but at 5-4 the Falcons are still poised to grab one of the six coveted NFC playoff spots. Here's why you shouldn't count out Matt Ryan and Company:
While there are no easy games in the NFL, the second half of the Falcons' schedule is about as friendly as you could hope for. Four of their remaining seven games are against teams currently with losing records. That list includes games against two teams struggling with rookie quarterbacks in the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, and two divisional games against the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Bucs, both being played at home in the Georgia Dome.
This weekend's matchup against Tennessee may look even on paper (both teams being 5-4), but the Titans have benefited from playing lousy teams and struggled mightily against good teams. A Week 12 game against Houston may prove more problematic for the Falcons and may ultimately determine their playoff worth. Atlanta also has one more game with the New Orleans Saints, and if history repeats itself, the Falcons may be in a good position to get a win away at the Superdome.
It wouldn't be unreasonable for the Falcons to go 7-1 or 6-2 from here on out, which would likely make them almost a lock for the Wild Card, and maybe even contend for the division.
They're Built for the Long Haul
Injuries have hampered the team a bit in the first half of the season, but the Falcons have all the tools necessary to contend deep into the season. What the Falcons lack in flash or outright dominance they make up for in consistency and having very few holes across the board.
They have a solid, dependable running game. As a run-first team, having the power of Michael Turner, the speed and agility of Jacquizz Rodgers, and the good hands of Jason Snelling make the Falcons backfield a perpetual threat. The receiving corps of Roddy White, a healthy Julio Jones and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez has got to be considered among the best in the NFC.
Defensively, they've been steady. No opponent has scored more than 31 points against them, and the high-scoring, defending champion Packers were held to only 25, their second-lowest total of the season. If there's anything that needs changing, John Abraham and the rest of the defensive line have got to get more pressure on the quarterback, something that's steadily improved this year.
The Falcons also have an important attribute that is essential to winning and making the playoffs: leadership. Which brings me to the final point...
Matt Ryan and Coach Mike Smith Just Know How To Win
Coach Smith took over the Falcons in 2008, and has led the team to three consecutive winning seasons. In the Falcons' 44-year history, they had never had consecutive winning seasons up until this point. Boding well for the rest of the year, the Falcons have kept intact the same core group of players over this four-year span, led by Matt Ryan.
Since being drafted in 2008, Matt Ryan has done one thing: win. In his first three seasons, Ryan led the Falcons to two playoff appearances and a division title while winning 72 percent of the games he started. That percentage is second among active quarterbacks, behind only Tom Brady. Ryan has worked his way into the upper echelon of elite quarterbacks, and while he's not going to wow you with his stats, his game management skills are top-notch.
The Atlanta Falcons, at least on paper, are more talented than they were in their 13-3 season last year. At 5-4, it's clear they are underachieving. The pieces of the puzzle are all there though, and if players can stay healthy and play up to their potential, there's no reason the Falcons can't solve the puzzle and make the playoffs again in 2011.