Loss to Steelers shows Falcons have yet to answer playoff urgency bell
ATLANTA -- No matter what Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith said, this season in the NFC South has been absolutely bonkers.
After the Falcons lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home on Sunday, Smith was asked how he felt about the way this season has played out, and the fact that if Atlanta handles its business in its final two games it will win the division.
"Nothing is odd about the NFL season," Smith said. "We've sat on the other side of it going on the road and having to play an 8-8 team that went to the Super Bowl, (then) playing a 9-7 team that won a Super Bowl. We're just glad that we're in the situation that we're in."
Smith was talking about Atlanta's trip to Arizona during the 2008 season (the Cardinals were actually 9-7 though) and its game against the Giants in 2011. Whether or not he got the opposing team's record correct or not, the point is that Smith knows what it's like to sneak into the playoffs as a division winner, and then have a shot at the title.
The only thing that matters to an NFL team is that it makes it into the playoffs.
The Falcons have been flirting with the playoffs for weeks now, even with a losing record. The NFC South is in a state of dismay. No team is near the .500 mark, but three teams (the Falcons, Saints and Panthers) are all within a half game of the division lead.
Atlanta took the lead in the NFC South after Week 11, when the Falcons traveled to Carolina and beat the Panthers to move to 4-6. The lead was only due to a tiebreaker scenario over the 4-6 Saints, but it was a lead nonetheless. Since then, the Falcons have lost and the Saints lost. Then Atlanta wins and New Orleans wins.
The cat-and-mouse game for the NFC South lead has been sad, but at the same time riveting. Heading into Week 15, the Falcons were 5-8 with the lead over the 5-8 Saints and the 4-8-1 Panthers.
To keep Atlanta focused on the present and not looking ahead to a trip to the playoffs as a team with a losing record, Smith adopted a "1-0" manta. The only goal for the Falcons each week was to finish that week 1-0. The team even had black t-shirts printed with a white "1-0" printed in the front.
The problem ... the only thing the world outside wants to talk about is the playoffs, and how the Falcons can make it in.
Even Smith, by way of his recanting of trips to play other teams that barely made it into the playoffs, let it be known that he's looked ahead at what could be.
The Falcons lost last Monday to Green Bay, but that was OK because the Saints had already lost. Even though Atlanta dropped Sunday's game to Pittsburgh, it's all fine because if the Falcons win at New Orleans next week and against as they host the Panthers in Week 17, the Falcons sill still make the playoffs.
Status quo has been a problem for these Falcons.
At some point the Falcons must stop living with the expectation that they're going to win their next game. Sooner or later, they're going to have win this game.
That time has come. Kind of.
The loss to Pittsburgh pushed the Falcons to 5-9. By way of Carolina's win over Tampa Bay, the Panthers are now a half-game ahead of the Falcons at 5-8-1. If the Saints win, they'll take the NFC South lead at 6-8. In this scenario, if the Falcons win their final two games they're in the playoffs.
But there are still ways for Atlanta to lose to New Orleans and still make it into the playoffs. Carolina could lose to Cleveland in Week 16. New Orleans could lose to Tampa Bay in Week 17. The scenarios are aplenty.
That's a problem for these Falcons. Thus far they've been playing with a safety net and it's bred a level of mediocrity. It stinks to lose, but it's OK at the same time because the rest of the NFC South is losing.
Until Atlanta shows that it can take a game when it's an absolutely necessary situation, this team will be scoffed. It would have been great for the Falcons to beat the Lions in London, but it wasn't necessary and they blew a 21-0 lead. Atlanta could have won a third-straight game by beating the Browns in Week 12, but it wasn't necessary. Therefore the Falcons lost on a last-second field goal.
In the grand scheme of the NFL playoff picture, Sunday's game against the Steelers meant absolutely nothing to the Falcons. A win would have ensured another week in first place in the division, but a loss didn't doom the team. Since there was no truly nasty repercussion, there was no truly fantastic result.
Just another loss for the Falcons, and still more promise that the playoffs are still in reach.