To have any hope of reaching the playoffs this season, the Atlanta Falcons must get it right inside the NFC South.
Losing division games is the worst thing a football team can do. Lose five of them and you can kiss goodbye to the postseason.
Two years ago, the Falcons dominated inside the NFC South with five wins from six. The problem? They only won one of their 10 games outside of the division. Last year was the polar opposite, with the Falcons winning only one NFC South game but seven of their other 10.
Had the Falcons taken care of business in the home games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans, we could have been looking back on a playoff team. It’s these fine margins that make all the difference in sport, and the Falcons were unable to make it count when it truly mattered.
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The schedule is brutal. Seven of the Falcons’ 16 games come against playoff teams from last year, and three of those are against teams who made it to the Super Bowl. Atlanta faces a three-game stretch of Carolina (home), Denver (road) and Seattle (road) — most NFL teams would expect to leave that run empty-handed.
The Falcons also face home games with Arizona and Green Bay, two of the premier teams in the NFC.
For this reason, getting it right in the division is crucial. To make the playoffs, the Falcons will need to win at least 10 games. It might have got them in last year and must be seen as the minimum requirement once again. With so many tough tests on the schedule, the Falcons will need to take care of business closer to home.
An optimist could pencil the Falcons in for five wins inside the NFC South. The New Orleans Saints are in a state of rebuild, with Drew Brees or not, and the Falcons have enough talent to sweep their biggest rivals. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make a significant jump this year, but they are still a work in progress in Jameis Winston’s second season.
It would be unfair to expect Atlanta to score two victories over the reigning NFC South champions, particularly after a season in which they only lost two of their 19 games, one of which was the Super Bowl.
But the Falcons did grab the other, and they are capable of upsetting the Panthers inside the Georgia Dome.
Last year, the Falcons were a mess in division games. Turnovers, poor defense and not enough offense caused a slump that cost Dan Quinn’s team a playoff berth. Putting it right inside the division will give them the best shot of returning to the postseason.