ATLANTA – The Falcons have a real chance to win the NFC South.
That's not due to what they've done. Tampa Bay's struggles have kept the division in play.
The Falcons lost for the fourth time in five tries on Sunday, losing 19-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They are three games under .500 and would be at least three games back in every other division with virtually no shot to make the postseason as a champ or wild-card entrant.
NFC South struggles, however, have kept hope alive.
Somehow, some way, the Falcons are still in it thanks to what Arthur Smith previously dubbed a "unique" opportunity.
We won't know how the Buccaneers do until Monday night, when they play the Saints. Even if Tampa Bay drops another one and the Falcons remain just a half-game back entering their bye – with a chance to pull even when they don't even play, though the Saints would suddenly be in the mix, too – it's hard for optimism to increase too much heading into the final four games.
Why? The Falcons aren't playing like a playoff team right now. While that sounds harsh, it's hard to rebut after a series of unwelcome results.
While we could granularly break down their issues, the Falcons simply must play better situationally and late in games to really push for the division crown. That has been clear over the last two weeks, which featured tough losses to Washington and Pittsburgh that ultimately featured poor performance in the clutch. Both games ended on Marcus Mariota interceptions, one in the end zone and the other on the first play of a last-ditch comeback attempt.
They need at least a little help, but the Falcons can probably wrestle control of their own destiny by winning their final four games. That would include a Week 18 matchup with Tampa Bay that could be for all the marbles.
That game might not matter at all if the Falcons don't get discernibly better. The players understand that, but aren't thinking about this post-bye stretch as one block. They're viewing it instead as a chance to divide and conquer.
"It's about going 1-0 each week," Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell said. "We can't look too far ahead. We have to make sure we have to win that next game."
Can personnel/lineup changes reverse fortunes? Arthur Smith said Sunday night that everything's on the table as coaches evaluate how to proceed out of the bye.
And, yes, that includes the quarterback position.
Smith was asked about the possibility of a quarterback change after losing to Pittsburgh and didn't slam the door on the idea as he has done before. It's open, maybe more than a crack.
I'm not an oddsmaker and I am not going to discuss probabilities here, but it's at least possible Desmond Ridder enters the action this season. Would that provide the jolt this offense and this team needs? It just might, but I'd caution against making the assumption it will. The backup quarterback's always the most popular player on teams with signal-caller insecurity, and the Falcons are no different. The "Ridder Ruckus," as Tori McElhaney calls the fan-base faction screaming for a quarterback change, will get loud again during the bye.
Ridder is an intriguing prospect with athleticism, a strong arm and a track record as a winner. Let's not forget that he was 44-6 at Cincinnati and unbeaten at home. But, as I always say when addressing the Mariota-Ridder debate, we have zero idea what coaches think about Ridder. Media hasn't seen him practice since the summer. He runs the scout team during a practice week. He could be performing well on the field and in meetings. Or he may not. We simply do not know.
Smith made it clear that changes will be made. That does not mean it will happen at quarterback. Sometimes change can be good, sometimes not. Sometimes a change can be made in an attempt to provide a spark.
Smith said that's not out of the realm of possibility. That might not be a bad thing after seeing the season slide in the wrong direction.
"You want to make sure you're doing the right thing, not overreacting emotionally, sometimes change," Smith said, "There are plenty of examples … that [change] can help. It can start something. Like I said, every option is on the table."
Smith was also asked if NFC South standing would impact his decisions regarding change. His answer didn't address that issue directly. It was aimed at a broader and more important point, that the Falcons have to play better if they're to make the most of their unique circumstance.
"We want to get back in the winning side," Smith said. "We've had a lot of close games. Not an issue of guys and you see the result we had no matter what. There are no moral victories. We got to get over this hump, so we got to look at everything and we got to get back to the other side of winning. There's a lot of reasons why, like I said, it'll be good to be able to take a step back. There will be changes made. We've got to look at everything."
They haven't been good enough lately. Whether they make big changes or not, they have to play better. And not just for one week. They need it, consistently, over four.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers during Week 13.