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Bair: Falcons let biggest playoff opportunity since 2017 slip away

Falcons suffer significant setback by losing high-stakes contest with 49ers

Postgame Column.12.19

The Falcons have not been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Head coach Arthur Smith pointed that out on Sunday night, and he's right.

There's still a chance, but it's ever-so-slim after a 31-13 loss to the 49ers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.

The folks at suggest the Falcons now have a two percent chance of making the postseason, at the time of this story's publication. A win over the 49ers would've put them at 42. It would've launched them into the thick of things, occupying the NFC's No. 6 seed, with a real shot to extend the season.

Instead, a postseason berth now seems unrealistic. Not impossible, mind you. And that's how the Falcons are choosing to look at it.

Sunday's loss was a significant setback. They refuse to say, however, that postseason hopes are dead and buried.

They're going to keep pushing, keep fighting for their ultimate goals. That's right on brand for a bunch of scrappers who never say die, even when things don't go right.

"We're going to compete every game," Smith said in his postgame press conference. "We just keep swinging. A lot of crazy things have happened in the NFL. We'll try to win the next one, to get one at home. We'll keep chipping away and see what happens. There are a lot of things that – what it looks like today is not how it's going to look after Week 18.

"You all have covered this league a long time. It usually comes down to the last week of the season. You just want to have a mathematical chance. Crazier things have happened."

A series of crazy things would have to happen for the Falcons to get back in this thing. They'll need to win out and get really lucky, like find a four-leaf clover while holding a winning lottery ticket kind of lucky. After all, they've lost head-to-head tiebreakers to San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington.

There's no doubting the Falcons are in a bad spot. Even a wide-eyed optimist would have to concede that.

"The mood is sour right now," safety Duron Harmon said. "I'm not going to lie. We let one get away. We didn't play the way we needed to play."

They need to play more like they did last week, when they were running the ball well and playing good defense on vital downs. They also had to maximize opportunities and avoid critical mistakes. They made too many with the worst offenses in the biggest moments. The Falcons got inside the San Francisco 10-yard line three times. They came away with zero points.

Smith said that was the difference in the game. Again, he's dead right.

"When you play a good football team in an important game, you have to find ways to score," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "You have to take advantage of those opportunities. We have to be better at that moving forward."

The Falcons will still use playoff possibilities as fuel until the math turns improbable to impossible, but fan focus should shift a bit. Eyes should home on areas of needed improvement, if the Falcons can make significant strides before the season ends. That goes for the group and for individuals, many of whom are in a contract year or fighting for positioning on next year's depth chart.

If they do those things, they're capable of going on a winning streak required to stand a puncher's chance. Only then should they look back at the playoff picture to see if enough went right for consideration.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers during Week 15.

"'So you're saying there's a chance? 'Isn't that the old line?" Ryan said, referring to the classic "Dumb and Dumber" quote. "I've seen crazy things happen in this league. We've got to hold up our end of the bargain, and that starts next week. …We need to find a way to win next Sunday, keep that narrow focus and see what happens."

What happened in the Bay Area was a real blow. The Falcons knew what was at stake. They didn't shy from the fact this was a massive contest and coming out on the wrong end of it would have major repercussions. The Falcons raised the game's stakes with solid play entering it, including a vital victory in Carolina.

The Falcons took a step back against the 49ers – they still haven't beaten a team with a winning record – but don't believe it will hinder progress previously made.

"It still feels like we're moving in the right direction, but this stings," Harmon said. "When you put everything you have into it and you feel confident in the game plan and feel confident about competing with your teammates, but today just wasn't our day. As much as we wanted it to be our day, it just wasn't."


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