This has been a weird season for the Atlanta Falcons. They’ve been successful overall, but there’s something that leaves you a little empty when thinking about how they’ve done.
Sure, Atlanta enters Sunday’s game with Carolina as one of the six NFC teams that would be in the playoffs if the season were over. And yet you have to think the Falcons have a lot of work still to do.
Atlanta had a golden opportunity last week to continue a two-game winning streak in a stretch of five games that is crucial to its chances to make the playoffs. But instead, a third-string quarterback (T.J. Yates) led Houston to a seven-point victory that was just a bad day for the Falcons.
They didn’t look good from the outset, and a sluggish performance on the road in the NFL will usually result in a loss. The Texans took advantage of several mistakes by the Falcons, and now Atlanta has to start a new winning streak against the Cam Newton-led Panthers.
Last year everything seemed to fall in place for the Falcons. It wasn’t until the playoff game against Green Bay when they came back down to Earth. But this team is having to work hard for every win it gets. Five of Atlanta’s seven wins have been by 10 points or fewer, and only two wins have come against winning teams.
Maybe instead of being at the top of the mountain, as they were last year as the top seed in the NFC, it’ll be better for the Falcons to fight hard as a wild card if they make it to the playoffs. But if they play like they did last week, they might be watching the postseason from home.
Carolina will not be easy to beat, as Newton has made the Panthers better. But it’s a division game, and Atlanta can’t afford to lose. The Panthers are 4-8, and Atlanta’s next opponent (Jacksonville) is 3-9. So before the Falcons take on the New Orleans Saints in two weeks, they have got to beat these two losing teams.
We were all led to believe that Atlanta’s offense would be more explosive with the addition of Julio Jones. But the offense has been pretty much what it was last year -- good, and even great at times, but somewhat inconsistent.
There have been too many drops by receivers that have cost the team victories. Remember the Roddy White drop against Tampa Bay? And it was hard to forget Jones dropping the pass against Houston last week. The Falcons might be 9-3 if those two catches were made.
And 9-3 is a heck of a lot better than 7-5.
This is pretty much a veteran team, and the core has been together too long to have the mental mistakes that have cost the Falcons this season. Now, we all know that football can change with one important victory. If the Falcons have an impressive win over Carolina, it could turn everything around in an instance.
That’s what makes this a fork in the road game. If Atlanta wins and then takes care of business Thursday against Jacksonville, it will set up a huge matchup in New Orleans the day after Christmas. But if the Falcons lose, they might need help and a perfect three weeks to make it to the playoffs.
Perhaps last year’s easy season was more unusual than this season. But the Falcons have the talent. They’re just looking for that extra spark that can make them serious contenders in the NFC. A win Sunday over a division rival could do just that.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com.