Originally created 12/14/01

Atlanta enters crucial stretch



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - The Atlanta Falcons don't need a history lesson to realize one thing: Another loss and their playoff hopes go from troubled to improbable.

At 6-6, the Falcons have little or no room for error. Another loss in the final stretch of four games, including this Sunday's trip to Indianapolis, will make it nearly impossible for the team to qualify for the postseason.

"Our backs are against the wall now," said middle linebacker Keith Brooking.

The three divisional leaders each automatically earn a playoff spot. Three other teams will advance with wild card berths. Green Bay, San Francisco and Chicago each have three losses, and it's likely two of the three wild card spots will go to one of those teams. (Either Green Bay or Chicago will probably win the NFC Central and earn an automatic bid).

St. Louis and Philadelphia are the current leaders of the West and East, respectively.

Tampa Bay is 7-5 and currently the sixth and final qualifier. New Orleans is 7-5, while Atlanta and Washington are both 6-6.

Basically, St. Louis, Green Bay, Chicago and San Francisco will each clinch a playoff spot with a single victory in the final month.

There are a lot of factors working in Atlanta's favor. New Orleans plays at home Monday against St. Louis, then plays at Tampa Bay six days later and plays host to Washington the following week. New Orleans then wraps up the regular season at home against the 49ers.

Tampa Bay plays at Chicago this Sunday, plays host to the Saints next week and then entertains Baltimore on Dec. 29 and Philadelphia on Jan. 6.

Washington has games remaining with Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and Arizona, while the Falcons follow their trip to Indianapolis with games against Buffalo, Miami and St. Louis.

In short, Tampa Bay faces three teams in the playoff hunt in the final four games; New Orleans plays four teams in the playoff race; Washington plays three teams; and Atlanta only faces two, counting a game against AFC East-leading Miami.

Nothing matters if the Falcons can't put together their first four-game winning streak since the 1998 season.

"For sure, we have to win three of the four and all four would pretty much guarantee it," quarterback Chris Chandler said. "We're going on the road again, so for some reason we seem to focus better or do something better on the road."

By winning the last four games, Atlanta would finish 10-6. Historically speaking, that would probably put the Falcons in the playoffs.

Since the National Football League went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, there have been 67 teams finish with a 10-6 record. Of those, 55 - about 82.1 percent - made the playoffs as a division winner or a wild card.

At the same time, 75 teams have finished with a 9-7 record. Of those, only 37 - about 49.3 percent - have qualified for the postseason.

Another thing working for the Falcons is their record on the road. Three of their final four games are away from the Georgia Dome, where the team is 2-5 this year. Atlanta's road record is 4-1.

"We've got our work cut out for us," said coach Dan Reeves. "What we've got to try to do is win our seventh game. The best chance to get that is this week against Indianapolis. Then we'll worry about the following week."

Reeves remains confident the Falcons can close with a flurry.

"Anything can happen. There are still four games left," he said. "As I've said many times, when you're winning the right things happen. When you lose, you've got to turn things around. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts. If you don't beat yourself, you've always got a chance. We've got to get it where we aren't beating ourselves."