The Atlanta Falcons are the biggest playoff threat, and everybody knows it.
The No. 6 seed in the NFC plays at top-seeded Philadelphia on Saturday, and the Eagles should be nervous facing the only returning conference team from last year’s playoffs. The bookies even installed the Falcons as 2.5-point favorites – the first time a No. 1 seed playing at home in the divisional round has ever been an underdog.
Only five times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966 has a home team ever been an underdog in the divisional playoff round, and before this week all five were No. 2 seeds. Those home dogs, however, went a combined 4-1 in those encounters.
The bettors don’t see this as some kind of aberration, with the line moving to 3 points as the majority of money is being bet on the Falcons.
Beware the pedigreed team that slinks into the postseason. Twice in the brief four-year history of the College Football Playoffs, a controversial No. 4 seed finagled its way in and stole away with the championship. Ohio State crashed the inaugural party in 2014 and Alabama did it this year despite not even winning its own division.
The Falcons have a few parallels with this year’s Crimson Tide team. They too failed to win their division, finishing third in the NFC South – the NFL’s version of the Southeastern Conference with three teams winning 10 or more games and comprising half of the six-team NFC playoff field.
Atlanta played the toughest schedule of any NFL team this season, according to TeamRankings.com. The Falcons played seven regular-season games against teams that reached the playoffs and 10 against teams that won at least nine games. Four of their six losses were by six points or fewer.
More than anything else, the reason the Falcons are favored over the Eagles today comes down to the quarterback. Last year’s MVP Matt Ryan instills more confidence in the Falcons than veteran backup Nick Foles does for the Eagles.
Philadelphia had its second-most prolific offense in franchise history thanks in large measure to its second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. When Wentz was lost to a season-ending knee injury with three games left in the regular season, the Eagles’ favored franchise status was naturally downgraded.
The Falcons are precisely the kind of team that can exploit it despite an offense that has thus far performed at a fraction of its 2016 output as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has failed to deploy his weapons as effectively as predecessor Kyle Shanahan.
There are signs, however, that the Falcons are waking up at the right time. In a road victory in the playoff opener last week against the Los Angeles Rams, Sarkisian found the right mix of rushing and short-route passing to steal away with a 26-13 victory. Those quick-hit passes, particularly utilizing the Falcons’ dual-threat running backs along with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, are the answer to neutralizing the Eagles’ stout run-stopping defense.
Should they get past Philly, an NFC championship against the Saints-Vikings winner awaits. The Falcons split with the Saints this year and lost 14-9 in a dreadful offensive display at home to the Vikings this season. Of course, the Vikings have their own postseason demons to overcome, including an improbable NFC title loss to the Falcons in 1999.
Considering the awakening offensive potential, the Falcons are as an appealing Super Bowl contender as anyone else in the wide-open NFC.
Of course, if the Falcons manage to run the road gauntlet to consecutive Super Bowls, they will have to relive last year’s meltdown in the worst way. Even if it’s not a rematch against the Patriots, that “28-3” theme will be inescapable. If it is against Tom Brady and the Pats, it will be insufferable.
Fresh on the heels of Georgia blowing a pair of 13-point leads to Alabama and getting burned in overtime of last week’s national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, all of Atlanta’s postseason miseries will be dredged up ad nauseam during the two-week buildup.
CBSSports.com writer John Breech already kicked off the theme in a column ranking a Patriots-Falcons rematch as the most compelling potential Super Bowl LII mathcup.
“After last year’s Super Bowl and UGA’s blown lead in the national title game, I have to think at least half the state is mortified at the thought of watching another football game where there’s a championship on the line,” Breech wrote.
Fair point. But the potential to bury once and for all the demons of “28-3” is worth the risk of another heartache.
Despite a poor showing in a 23-7 loss to the Patriots in a blinding New England fog in October as well as prior setbacks to the Saints and Vikings, the Falcons should play this postseason with no fear of anyone.
Atlanta still has an offense that includes some of the best weapons at receiver, running back and quarterback in the NFL. And it has a defense that’s already beaten Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff. It’s 6-3 on the road, winning more often away than it did in its new home.
As its inspirational hype video states, “the brotherhood is alive.” That fact should make everyone else a little nervous.