In typical Atlanta fashion, the Falcons attempted to choke away a double-digit lead in the last four minutes of their Monday Night Showdown in Seattle. However, a Blair Walsh missed 52-yard field goal temporarily stopped the Falcons bleeding, as Atlanta went to sleep Monday night with their foot in the door of the playoff picture as the sixth seed.
It has been a wild ride from start to finish to this point. A shaky 3-0 start was still a 3-0 start. Until some of those close games began to turn into losses like they did in back-t0-back weeks against the lowly Bills and Dolphins to push the Falcons back to 3-2. A Sunday night embarrassment in the Super Bowl rematch in Foxborough would only poke at the wound, as the team had reached a low point it might not have felt since last year’s Super Bowl. Despite the rough start, the Falcons remained upbeat about where the team was headed. And when you are led by last year’s MVP Matt Ryan, there is always a reason to believe.
Following the beatdown by the Patriots, the Falcons split road games at New York and Carolina. Neither showed signs of this team turning a corner on either side of the ball, and left Atlanta with two must-win games against two of the NFC’s best.
The first of which came against the Dallas Cowboys in Atlanta. The Falcons were fortunate to face America’s team without star second-year running back, Ezekiel Elliot, and the league’s best left tackle, Tyron Smith. The combination of the two left Dak Prescott on an island all afternoon. Falcons defensive end, Adrian Clayborn, led the way with a franchise-record six sacks, as Atlanta stomped Dallas 27-7, setting up a pivotal Monday Night matchup with Seattle.
In Seattle, The Falcons looked to build off their defensive performance against the Cowboys. But Russell Wilson, the frontrunner for this year’s MVP, made that nearly impossible. Dual-threat quarterbacks have been the Achilles heel for this Atlanta defense, and that proved to be true once again, as Wilson shredded the Falcons to the tune of 258 yards through the air and another 86 on the ground with 3 total touchdowns. It was a heroic performance that was desperately needed from a banged-up Seattle team because Matt Ryan and company began to look a lot more like the offense from a season ago.
Atlanta marched down the field on their opening two possessions to grab a 14-0 lead. Seattle would spend the next three quarters trying grind away at that lead, but every time they would get close, Matt Ryan had an answer. The league’s reigning MVP failed to throw for 200 yards in a game for the first time in 65 tries, which was easily the longest streak in the NFL (Ben Roethlisberger is now the longest with 15), but when the chips were on the table he made every single play. The Falcons were an incredible 9-14 on third down conversions and most of those games from dimes out of the hand of Ryan. Ryan finished with a total QBR of 92.3 on the night, by far his most impressive mark of the season.
Even with Ryan’s spectacular statistical night, he was still unable to put the game away when it mattered, a trend that goes back for way too long with the Falcons. Atlanta settled for a field goal on their second to last possession and went three-and-out on their final possession when they only needed a first down to ice the game. Fortunately, Atlanta was bailed out by a missed field goal, and it was a break they sorely needed.
A loss to Seattle would have put the Falcons virtually three games back in the wild card (Two games back and lose the tiebreakers to both the Panthers in the Seahawks). With only six games remaining, and a wealth of great teams left on Atlanta’s schedule, Monday Night’s game was virtually a must-win. The Falcons now stand as the NFC’s sixth seed after their win and is a team that most are not going to want to see come playoff time.
A year ago, the Falcons sat at 6-5 before reeling off five straight wins heading into the postseason. At 6-4 this season, there is reason to believe this team can put together a similar run. It is tough to find a roster with more talent on both sides of the ball. Matt Ryan and company easily have the capability to return to the league’s best offense, and the Atlanta defense has already shown significant improvement in all areas from a season ago. The Falcons also have five division games remaining of their last six. A division that Atlanta went 5-1 against last year.
The NFC is a much better conference than it was a season ago. Teams like the Eagles, Saints, Vikings, and Rams have taken the leap from borderline playoff contenders to legit Super Bowl contenders. Atlanta will likely have to win at least five of their next six games to capture the NFC South crown once again, which might not happen, but that does not mean the Falcons cannot make a run. The talent on this squad is undeniable and it has shown in huge wins over the Packers, Cowboys, and Seahawks. On any given Sunday, Atlanta is one of the toughest team’s in the league to beat and come playoff time, that is going to mean something if they find their way into the dance.