Many didn’t see it coming two years ago when the Falcons went 13-3 and earned the NFC’s top playoff seed for only the second time in franchise history.
This time, it’s different.
Only six weeks into the season and in the midst of their bye week, the Falcons appear as if home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is virtually theirs to lose.
They stand to reap the benefits of starting 6-0, even while showing some warts in the last three games. Unlike college football — where teams must impress voters to have a shot at the national championship — there are no style points in the NFL, and confidence tends to snowball.
Owing to a transformation the Falcons underwent over the last couple of seasons, starting with drafting wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011, they would greatly help their cause to win the NFC’s top playoff seed.
In the past, the Falcons played more of the style of a cold-weather team. They tried to win the time-of-possession battle and battered opponents with running back Michael Turner.
But not anymore. Now, they have morphed into a “dome” team with more of a reliance on a passing attack and speedy wide receivers such as Jones, whom they gave up so much to acquire.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown 236 times already this season — only New England’s Tom Brady has thrown it more. With a rating of 98.8, Ryan ranks top five in that category, allowing him to serve as the engine for the offense. Furthermore, the Falcons only run the ball 23.2 times per game. Only five teams run it less on average.
All of which means, as the Falcons learned last year in a 24-2 loss in the NFC wild-card game to the Giants at MetLife Stadium, that the Falcons do not need to being playing on the road in places like New York or Chicago come January.
Additionally, in Smith’s five seasons, the Falcons are 29-6 at the Georgia Dome (an .829 winning percentage in the regular season, including .879, 29-4, when Ryan starts at home). It’s also worth noting that while, as almost anyone who follows the NFL knows, the Falcons are 0-3 in the postseason under head coach Mike Smith, they have only lost one of those games at home.
So, it’s almost stating the obvious to say that the Falcons would help their cause to secure the home seed for the playoffs — unlike a team such as the Giants, who seem so well suited to winning on the road, whether during the regular or postseason.
To do it, the Falcons might only have to go 7-3 the rest of the way, which would, coincidentally, give them the same record as they finished with in 2010. The Falcons’ remaining opponents own a collective record of 22-31. Only two opponents, Arizona and the Giants, have winning records, and the Falcons face both of those teams at home.
Meanwhile, the teams that look like their top contenders for the NFC’s top seed appear to have a much tougher road. Chicago (4-1) faces opponents whose combined records are 35-28, including six teams with winning records plus a seemingly resurgent Green Bay (3-3). San Francisco (4-2) has the toughest road with opponents’ whose collective record is 33-25 (.569 winning percentage) with five teams having a winning record plus a road trip to New England (3-3).
The Giants’ remaining opponents are 31-26 and, like the Falcons, have only two remaining opponents left that currently have winning records. A Dec. 16 meeting in the Georgia Dome could decide the conference’s top playoff seed.
If the Falcons go 7-3 the rest of the way, the Bears would have to go 9-2 to tie them and the Giants and 49ers each would have to go 9-1 — a tall order.
So this season looks to be different from 2010, when the Falcons also earned the NFC’s top seed only to lose their first game to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Packers. That season, Atlanta lost its season opener at Pittsburgh in overtime and then were humbled 31-17 on the road at Philadelphia a few weeks later to start out 4-2. Then they finished by winning nine out of their final 10, their only defeat coming at home 17-14 to New Orleans with the NFC South title mostly out of reach for the Saints prior to that game.
So just as the Falcons went 9-1 to close that season, so could the Giants, Bears or 49ers in this one. A significant injury — Ryan, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Asante Samuel are critical — could derail the Falcons.