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Bair: Performance vs. Bears won't cut it to claim improbable NFC South title

The Falcons can win the division by beating New Orleans, combined with a Bucs loss to Carolina. 

CHICAGO – Sunday's lone positive development for the Falcons occurred 1,173.5 miles from where they played.

That came way down at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., where the Saints beat the Bucs and left the NFC South there for the taking.

The Falcons 37-17 loss to the Chicago Bears in the snow at Soldier Field didn't impact that point one bit. It essentially eliminated the Falcons from the wild card race but there's a possibility they could steal the division crown at 8-9.

Here's the situation: The Bucs will win the NFC South by beating Carolina in the regular-season finale. If the Bucs lose, the winner of Falcons-Saints takes home the title.

Yep. The Falcons could win it at 8-9 due to a better record among games between the Falcons, Bucs and Saints. And, nope, they wouldn't feel bad for doing so despite a record below .500.

There was some solace to be taken in that despite a disappointing result where nothing went quite right. The Falcons threw four interceptions and didn't take the ball away. Atlanta was 0-for-1 in the red zone. The Bears were 4-for-5. Chicago held possession almost 15 minutes longer and won every offensive category by a significant margin.

The Bears deserved to win. The Falcons deserved the result they got.

Despite all those things, the Falcons still have a shot.

"It feels really (crappy) right now, to be honest, to come over here and get beat like that," quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. "But, the fact that we still have a chance going into Week 18, the fact that we're still in that, that's what you want. If someone said in Week 18 that you have a chance to go to the playoffs, you take it.

"That's where we are right now. We're going to focus on the Saints, go out and beat them and root for the Panthers this weekend."

There's a point of contention late in that Heinicke quote. It's when he talks about beating the Saints, which is no given.

Atlanta certainly can, if we see the Falcons team that beat the Saints in Week 12 or dominated the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16. If it's Sunday's version, that won't get it done.

This team is at its best when its winning the turnover battle and playing stingy critical-down defense.

That's the part of the Falcons destiny they still control. If they play to their capability, they can go down to New Orleans and beat the rival Saints in their building.

But, because of inconsistencies and critical errors that have directly impacted outcomes, they're looking to a two-win Panthers team for help in beating the Bucs. Odds of that happening aren't great, but unexpected outcomes have frequented this strange-duck season.

The Falcons had control of the division less than a month ago and lost it. They've been playing catch-up ever since, but haven't reached Tampa Bay's pace. There's one more shot to do so, and the Falcons are appreciative of that.

"We're not out of the fight," Falcons safety Jessie Bates III said. "Thank God for the Saints, getting the job done. We'll be ready to play next week, that's for sure."

Calais Campbell expects "to see a great football team go out and compete." It seems virtually certain the entire NFC South will play at the same time, meaning fans will keep an eye on the game and another on the scoreboard.

It's a situation that could've been avoided with better overall play this season and in select, identifiable moments against the Vikings, Cardinals and Panthers. Take a miscue away in one, maybe win two of those games and this column reads a lot different.

Inconsistencies and turnovers have come to define this season, one that could've been already over in a different division. The Falcons are still alive, though, and can squeak into the postseason with some help and one of their best performances this season. We've seen this team operate at a high level. They'll need to do so one last time to have a chance at the improbable: A sub-.500 postseason berth.

It won't solve the problems apparent during this season or alleviate some concerns about the future, but it will signify progress worth following into 2024 and beyond.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field during Week 17.

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