The Falcons won twice in their first two opportunities, with victories over Carolina and Green Bay. They haven't won consecutive games since. Yep, no win streaks since September.
That's why the Falcons have hovered around .500 most of the year, with a three-game losing streak erasing their early-season cushion. They now sit just a game under that mark after beating the New Orleans Saints, a victory that becomes massive if and only if the Falcons can use it as a launch point toward better play.
The Falcons must stack wins to claim the NFC South, a division they sit atop despite a 5-6 record. A surge is required and both players and coaches know it. The only way to create one is to find the first of our five things to watch for heading into Sunday's game against the host New York Jets:
The word above was the Falcons theme of the week. Through consistency the Falcons can build the type of positive momentum required to win a bunch and ultimately take the division.
That's a plane the Falcons haven't reached much this season but must find starting on Sunday. Here's why that's easier said than done: They were super motivated to snap a three-game losing streak coming off a bye, entering a rivalry week practicing hard, executing better and playing like they wanted it more.
Can they bring that type of energy, focus and passion against the struggling Jets? They'll have to. The Falcons aren't in a place where they can dominate with a less-than-stellar effort. And while the Jets quarterback situation hasn't been great, New York has quality skill players and an excellent defense.
The Falcons must find a way replicate their Saints level of energy and execution Sunday at MetLife Stadium to maintain their place atop the NFC South and get one win closer to a playoff position.
"It goes back to consistency," Smith said. "Shouldn't take a loss or feel like your back is against the wall to have that level of focus and intensity. That's the challenge. You're fighting one or the other. When you're down, trying to get perspective and keep working to fix your issues to get a win. Then, when you get a win, you're fighting to not feel satisfied. Shouldn't be that way, but the history of time will tell you it is in life and a lot of professions. That's what you love about football is that challenge. It's a challenge every week."
2. Desmond Ridder and winning on the road
I was on 92.9-FM's "The Morning Shift" on Friday and was asked why the Falcons have struggled on the road – they're 1-4 on the road this year, 1-7 in 2022 – in recent seasons. Here's my theory: The Falcons don't have the talent and depth to demolish teams but are good enough to compete with most anyone, leading to all the close games we've seen.
A mistake here or there is normally the difference, in addition to the value of playing a home, where the crowd, weather and environment can play a role in an outcome. If things are close, the crowd's in it and winning on the road gets harder. If you minimize self-inflicted mistakes, like, let's say, interceptions or red-zone turnovers, visitors can create an advantage that can discourage fans and minimize advantages of the home team.
That brings us to the quarterback. Desmond Ridder has been involved in too many of those negative, often game-changing plays, with eight interceptions and seven fumbles on his ledger. Avoiding giveaways will be key in this one, especially in Falcons territory. The Jets have struggled moving the football, so the Falcons don't want to give them any easy points.
A punt is better than a turnover in what could be a low-scoring affair, so the Falcons have to avoid a large sum of critical mistakes to come out on the right side of this one.
3. The three-headed monster
The Falcons had a season-high 228 yards against the Saints, with Bijan Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier each playing a significant role in the effort. That trio is super talented, with different rushing styles that make for a truly dynamic ground game when forces combine.
That happened for the first time versus New Orleans, with Robinson, Allgeier and Patterson running behind an offensive line playing as well as any in the league. The front was physical and aggressive, creating the space required to churn out 5.6 yards per carry.
Efficiency is possible against a Jets defense that has given up 140.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks second worst in the league. This, therefore, is an opportunity to dominate a game on the ground. While individual workloads were more of a factor earlier in the year, it's now time to let all three backs get after it and show what they can do.
It's fine if that creates some offensive imbalance. This year's attack has strived for more equal parts run and pass than last year's ground-heavy strategy, but emphasizing the run isn't a bad thing. The Saints game is proof of that, when the Falcons averaged 6.4 yards per play on 41 runs and 21 pass attempts.
4. Clamp down on explosives
The Falcons have given up far too many big plays this season, with a few that come to mind from each game. A largely stingy Falcons defense has had costly lapses enough this season that opponents will continue to attack until they shore up a weakness.
The Jets will certainly considering their struggles sustaining drives and the explosive playmakers at their disposal. Running back Breece Hall and receiver Garrett Wilson are two of their best and can change a game in a hurry. The Falcons must avoid that at all costs, keep the Jets off schedule offensively and force quarterback Tim Boyle to make low percentage throws with a pass rush bearing down.
5. Follow Saints blueprint
The Falcons didn't play a perfect game against New Orleans, not even close. But they played to their strengths, working behind a tough-as-heck offensive line that set the tone for the entire game. They ran the ball a ton and wore New Orleans down.
They gave up too many yards but were difficult in the red zone and generated two timely takeaways in Falcons territory. Ridder still threw too many interceptions, but it was a strong team win that can be replicated.
Run the ball well and control the clock. Play opportunistic defense. Make big pass plays when available and convert third-downs at a 50-ish% clip.
Do all those things and the Falcons should emerge victorious more often than not.