Falcons fans have a love-hate relationship with the word playoffs. Mention it when it's anything but a guarantee and you get a Jim Mora GIF in return.
Playoffs?!? Are you kidding me?!?
Nope. Not right now, not in this moment.
I'm sure precise math will create a scenario where it won't pan out – don't @ me, bro – but this next statement essentially rings true: Win (a whole lot) and you're in.
Mykal Walker said after last week's crucial Panthers victory that the Falcons are already in the playoffs, that they have to win out to extend the season.
That would certainly help, but they can stumble at some points along the way and still sneak in.
That doesn't (really) include Sunday. The Falcons gotta have this one against the 49ers.
It isn't a true must-win, but it's pretty darn close. Punch enough buttons in the fivethirtyeight.com NFL playoff predictor and virtually any team can get in, but…the odds of the Falcons making the postseason skyrocket with a win Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Falcons currently have a 12 percent chance of making the postseason. A win over the 49ers increases it to 42 percent. The local 53 would even records with the 49ers and secure a crucial head-to-head tiebreaker they've lost with Washington and Philadelphia. A defeat Sunday drops the odds to three percent. That's, well, a big swing.
Head coach Arthur Smith made it clear last week that the clash in Carolina was a huge game. It was, and the Falcons won it. He wasn’t coy about this 49ers contest either, honest about the fact the stakes have been raised.
"I mean, you know the old cliché, it's a big game cause it's the next game but, the reality is, and it's a late December game with a lot of line for both teams," Smith said. "It's an important NFC game for both teams. It's where you want to be. You want to be in meaningful games. I've said it 100 times, I'll say it again. You continue to win. You give yourself a chance. It's a big game for both teams."
The fact we’re even having this conversation at this point in the season is a surprise. The Falcons were 4-12 a year ago. A new regime inherited serious salary cap issues that have contributed to a real lack of roster depth. Go find an NFL preview magazine that had the Falcons playing into mid-January. Yeah. Doesn't exist.
There are some who will say the Falcons are undeserving. They’ll target a minus-108 point deferential as a stat showing the Falcons don't belong. What those folks forget: this isn't figure skating or skateboarding. There are no style points. Dean Pees was right many weeks ago when he said there are no ugly wins. There are no pretty losses. A 43-3 disaster in Dallas counts the same as a 34-30 heartbreaker against Washington.
A final result only counts as one. W or L. That's all that matters in a zero-sum NFL game.
The Falcons must do something rare, in this season anyway, to achieve another desired end. They'll have to establish a winning streak. They've done so just once in 2021, with a bye separating consecutive wins over the Jets and Dolphins.
The Atlanta Falcons get to work in preparation for Sunday's game against San Francisco. Take a look at the best images in this gallery.
They'll need another first on Sunday, with a victory over a serious contender. The Falcons have beaten lower-tier teams on the regular. Wins over even middle-of-the-roads have proven difficult. The 49ers are at least that, and they're anything but a pushover. They have plenty of star power. Nick Bosa and George Kittle are game changers. Kyle Shanahan can coach. The Falcons must continue positive trends on defense and in the running game to contend, while minimizing mistakes they can't afford against a solid opponent.
But, as we've seen all season, finding a way to win is the only goal. The Falcons have done that enough to be in a playoff conversation. Say what you will about this team and its results. You can't take that away.
Whether that remains will depend on Sunday's events.
So, in sum, this 49ers game is huge. Win and the rest become monumental.
"It's very significant," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "For us as a team, they're all going to be this way moving forward if we handle our business. We understand the position we're in, but we also know, you can't control the next three games. It's really just about taking care of business this week, extending our opportunity to be relevant. I'm excited about that. It's fun to be this time of the year, to be in games that matter and games that have consequences, and I'm excited for that opportunity."