Despite being on a two-game losing streak which brought about calls for the “quarterback of the future” to finally make his debut, the Atlanta Falcons are still in the NFC playoff picture, both in their surprisingly subpar division and a conference that currently has all but one team in if the playoffs started today. Given the fact that the team was projected to be the “worst team in the NFL”, despite the recent slump, they’re ahead of schedule prior to 2023’s cap space balloon.
That said, this Sunday’s matchup is very interesting not just because the Falcons have a chance to keep their slim hopes of January football alive, but they all but slam the door on their opponent if they’re successful: the Chicago Bears.
And yes, that’s not a typo; the Atlanta Falcons somehow can make it nearly impossible for the Bears to make the playoffs with a win coupled with a Vikings win over the Cowboys.
The Atlanta Falcons must take down a rising Chicago Bears team
Chicago’s actually been somewhat of a surprise themselves recently, and that could also be a byproduct of nobody giving any confidence in Justin Fields and a lack of real substance and talent around the young signal-caller. However, despite their recent problems of their own, Chicago is much like our Atlanta Falcons: they’re on the outside of the playoff picture, need some assistance from the teams ahead of them, and they’ll squeak into the dance.
This is exactly the kind of game the Falcons needed, both in a positive and a negative manner.
Let’s look at the positives first. Atlanta’s still in the “transition” phase, and yes, that still rings true 11 weeks into the season. That said, teams in this phase normally just fold up and maybe shock a team late in the year, not: collapse against a rival, nearly exorcise demons, rack off two-game winning streaks, and have an (albeit very unimpressive) pass rush that occasionally manages to get home. For a team that might be contending long into the next decade, getting these young players acclimated to both the highest of highs and lowest of lows (not counting playoffs) ultimately pays dividends.
Then, let’s look at the remaining schedule for the Falcons. After this Bears game, they travel to Washington, host the Steelers, travel to New Orleans and Baltimore following a bye, then stay in Atlanta to host the Cardinals and Buccaneers. As it stands, while Tampa does have a .500 record, only the Ravens have a record above it, so most of these games are “winnable” for the Falcons.
From a negative manner, however, it’s two main factors: the quarterback play and the defense. We’ll start with the former. Folks, it’s not that any of us outright hate Marcus Mariota; heck, I’ve been one of the few who gives him more benefit of the doubt because of the awareness this position is handed. Think about it: how many “talking heads” are willing to blame a team’s offensive line or defense more than the quarterback? The answer’s not many because even they recognize that a quarterback gets loads of praise in a victory and all the scrutiny in a defeat.
While Mariota’s last few games haven’t been “future of Atlanta at quarterback” worthy (and possibly never will), right now he’s the leader this team needed to weather this storm in preparation for the 2023 horizon. Who knows, maybe Smith and Fontenot explained this situation to him when they first signed him, and he was like “I’m in; when do we start and how can I get this team ready for the future?”
Now we reach what is arguably the bane of the entire Falcons organization: the defense. Folks, be honest in answering this question, how many games have you not all but felt heart palpitations watching a Falcons game? That answer is very rhetorical, because we’ve all been there, and it mainly starts with the defense. From not making it to the quarterback on a consistent basis to being completely out of position allows opposing offenses to have their way and get into a rhythm quicker, thus making it more challenging to stop.
Given the fact that Chicago’s offense is nearly as one-sided as Atlanta’s is (they’ve run the ball on a higher percentage), it does come down to the run defense to step up and force Fields to beat us with the passing game. Fields technically doesn’t have the greatest plethora of weapons in his arsenal, and his accuracy still needs work, but when you run for 555 yards over the last five weeks of football and break Michael Vick’s record for most yards by a quarterback in a game, the pressure mounts on the front four and the linebacker core to not get sucked in on play-action passes and strongly secure him on a tackle; he’s very elusive.
For the Falcons to truly make a run, it starts this Sunday on FOX. Just don’t “fade to black” like the gradient jerseys (which honestly are really clean) imply.