This is what happens when a team starts a football season 1-4. It is behind the proverbial 8-ball, having to do everything right to try and keep its season alive.
The Atlanta Falcons are in that position Sunday, as they travel west to play the Arizona Cardinals. A win, and the season continues, but a loss might mean the Falcons start looking toward the draft in May.
That’s what injuries will do to a team, and there are a number of teams in this state that know all about that this season. But the Falcons have been hit hard, and the return of one of those banged-up individuals could be the difference against the Cardinals.
Running back Steven Jackson is expected back Sunday after missing the past four games. Atlanta went 1-3 in those four games Jackson missed, and the only win was against Tampa Bay, one of the worst teams in the NFL.
Would they have won at least one of those three games against the AFC East opponents if Jackson had played? Possibly, and even a single win in one of those three games would make the record 3-3 instead of 2-4.
For a team fighting to get into the playoffs, that’s a huge difference.
The Falcons were so anxious to see how Jackson would be better than his predecessor, Michael Turner. Jackson had been durable, missing only 13 games in nine seasons with the St. Louis Rams before he joined Atlanta. But a hamstring injury suffered against the Rams in Week 2 knocked him out and in turn killed Atlanta’s running game.
The replacements, mostly Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers, have not done well. Without Jackson, the Falcons have rushed for only 71.5 yards per game in the past four games. For the season, Atlanta has the third-worst rushing attack in the NFL.
So, obviously, the Falcons must have Jackson play Sunday and do well. It’s one thing to get Jackson back, but it’s another thing to have him be effective. He has to run well behind an offensive line that is still suspect.
No one should have been pleased last week when it was reported that Jeremy Trueblood, who was signed last month off the scrap heap, graded out as the best offensive lineman against the Bucs. If Trueblood is the best one, what does that say about the drafted players and veterans who have been in the Atlanta system for a while?
If the Falcons can win this week, they’ll be in the same spot a week from now when they go to Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers. Again, to have must-win situations in late October, just eight weeks into the season, is not the ideal plan. But that’s what the three-game losing streak did for this team.
Two more wins would get Atlanta to the .500 mark at 4-4. Then the Falcons could see how they fare at the midway point in the season, with eight more games remaining.
The problem will be the schedule. The Falcons have a home game against Seattle in two weeks, and the Seahawks might have the best team in the NFL right now. Then there are two road games in December that will be huge challenges. Can this team beat Green Bay and San Francisco away from the Georgia Dome with a playoff spot on the line?
It’s not going to be easy, but step one starts Sunday in the desert. The Falcons must believe getting their star running back on the field could not only save the season, but get them back on track, as well.
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. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.