The battle for first place in the NFC South might be the strangest race in professional sports history. There are two teams at 5-8 leading the way, with a team actually 4-8-1 still believing it has a chance to win the division.
The Atlanta Falcons are at the top, based on their win over the New Orleans Saints in the season opener. The Falcons’ loss Monday to Green Bay guaranteed that the winner of the division will not have a winning record. Atlanta could still be 8-8 if it wins its final three games, but that’s the best it can be -- a .500 team.
Atlanta played well against the Packers and should feel confident it can outscore most opponents. Not many will outscore Green Bay, as Aaron Rodgers is in another world right now with his talent. But the Falcons, who were down 31-7 at halftime, did not give up. They made people take notice that while the defense is still awful, they are going to score points.
Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones is a dangerous duo right now. Those two are in as much of a zone as Rodgers is with his receivers, and Jones is finally showing why he could be the best receiver in the NFL. But that’s all the Falcons have, as the running game is non-existent.
Steven Jackson is done. He is the epitome of an old running back who is running out of gas. The Falcons are wasting time by running him up the middle. They should give Devonta Freeman more chances, just to adequately evaluate his potential moving forward.
If the Falcons had a running game and could control the clock more, they would be much better than 5-8. Jackson’s inability to continue drives by getting first downs makes Atlanta a one-dimensional team, and against teams with a solid pass defense, the Falcons might not find it as easy to score points.
Combine the lack of a running game on offense with no pass rush on defense, and you have a mediocre team. Rodgers was barely under any pressure Monday. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Pepper Rodgers throwing the ball, the Falcons simply can’t stop anybody.
Atlanta is last in the NFL in total defense, last in pass defense and last in sacks. The run defense has improved a bit from last year, but it’s not enough to make a huge difference. If the Falcons are going to win, they’re simply going to have to outscore their opponents.
And the crazy thing about all of this is the Falcons still probably have the best team in the NFC South. New Orleans was blown out by Carolina at home on Sunday. The Saints go to Chicago and then host the Falcons in New Orleans next week. They looked awful against the Panthers, who now have to worry about their chances with Cam Newton hurt in a car accident Tuesday morning.
It is easy to say the Falcons must win this week against Pittsburgh, but they really don’t. They only have to win next Sunday in New Orleans. That’s the must-win game, and there’s no reason to think the Falcons can’t win that one with the Saints playing so poorly.
What’s the true value of Atlanta making the playoffs, when most will think it will be out quickly? Well, the Falcons are battling the Saints, and there is always plenty of reason to be better than your rivals. And regardless of the record, the Falcons showed Monday they do have pride to try and play well, even if the odds are stacked against them.
Plus, we all know Mike Smith is coaching for his job. If the Falcons win the NFC South, even with a sub-.500 record, he’ll probably stick around for next year. And he should. The lackluster roster is not his fault.
It’s not a normal division race, but it still is interesting. “May the best team win” might not be the appropriate phrase. Instead, it might be the best team left standing.
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