ATLANTA – The Falcons are still in the playoff mix despite Sunday’s 30-17 loss to Tampa Bay here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Head coach Arthur Smith pointed that out both to his players and those assembled at his postgame press conference, and he's right. The Falcons (5-7) are still able to accomplish all their goals.
While the number of teams ahead of them in the NFC increased significantly, they're no worse than a game behind the NFC’s No. 7 seed, though maybe a smidge farther back after tiebreaker-effecting losses to a few of them head-to-head.
"The truth of the matter is that we're still in the mix," Smith said. "We've got five games to go. That's a lot of football left. We'll get back to work. We've seen a lot of improvement the last two weeks and we're excited about the challenge of going on the road again to play a divisional opponent [in Carolina].
"We have to be ready to go because the opportunity is still there. The [players know that]. [The coaches] know it. That's the charge."
Smith's messaging is a motivating factor that will push the Falcons ahead and into an easier final stretch, following a brutal four-game gauntlet with three games against division leaders.
There must be a sense of urgency in their elusive quest for a complete game, which is required for the Falcons to beat a team of real substance. They'll have to do that at least once, maybe twice, while avoiding slip-ups against lesser opposition.
While there are still five games to go, there's another way of looking at it. There are only five games left. Far more sand's at the bottom of the hourglass than the top. The margin for error here is getting smaller by the week, at razor-thin levels after falling to Tampa Bay.
In sum: If the Falcons are really going to make a move, it has to be now. There's no more time or opportunities to waste.
They hung tough, for a while anyway, against Tampa Bay. Still ended up with a loss despite doing some good things. They can't let any more opportunities get away.
"We have to be opportunistic as we move forward, but we have everything we want right in front of us," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Ultimately, this time of the year, that's all you can ask for. Now it's about figuring out how to play our best football over the next five weeks.
"I don't think you can get too far down the road. You have to focus on this next week and find a way to get a good divisional win on the road."
The Falcons are in Carolina next week for a now massive NFC South clash. Gotta get that one, plain and simple, for all the reasons we've discussed here.
Everyone who hit a podium today said the Falcons remain confident despite recent results. They point to things done well fueling the promise of doing even better in the future.
The future must essentially be now.
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If they wait too long to figure it out, to play the essentially-mistake-free football required for this roster to win games, it'll be too late. The math will be unfavorable, the deficit too large to erase with the time remaining.
We still aren't in must-win territory thanks to muddled conference landscape, but we're getting awfully close.
There is belief, however, that the Falcons can get hot. If they do that, then we seriously mention the playoffs as a strong possibility.
The only way that happens, Ryan points out, is by staying in the present.
"You want to have self belief, but at the same time, you have to strive for daily improvement," Ryan said. "That's what Art talked about in the first meeting we had. We have to seek that growth this week and work on that during practice while knowing that there are plays being made. There are things we're doing well. We have to build on those. We need more of those types of plays.
"We have to find a way to get the job done in the division. Those games are always critical. They're worth, basically, one-and-a-half. We have to focus only on what's in front of us."
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