Today on this last day of the regular season, I'm wondering about what might have been.
Looking at the standings as the day begins, it looks like if the Falcons beat Tampa Bay to finish 9-7 then they won't have missed the playoffs by much.
A 10-6 record will have been necessary at a minimum – potentially meaning the Falcons could have made the playoffs by winning one more game – but it's also possible that 11-5 could end up being the standard if Green Bay (10-5) beats Arizona (10-5) and Dallas (10-5) beats Philadelphia (11-4).
Of course, the Falcons would have had to have won the right game or combination of games to have earned an NFC Wildcard playoff berth at 10-6 or 11-5. And their closest losses did not come against either Dallas or Philadelphia – both of those were blowouts. If the Falcons had lost a close game to one of those two teams, it might be a lot easier to huff and puff about one play here or there.
Nonetheless, here comes some huffing and puffing a few plays here or there could have changed the outcome of the season. The Falcons' most lamentable losses came against the New York Giants, the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints.
In the Giants game, Jason Elam missed a field goal and Michael Jenkins dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone. If the Falcons had made either of those plays, they likely would have won in regulation. (They lost in overtime 34-31.)
In the Carolina game, Elam missed a field goal late in regulation that would have put the Falcons up 22-21. A few plays later, Carolina broke a long touchdown run to win 28-19, making the score appear not nearly as close as the game was.
While both Saints games were close – and a missed Elam field goal figured prominently in the Falcons' 35-27 loss on Nov. 2 at the Superdome -- to me one play stood out more in the 26-23 loss at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 13. That was the pass interference call that Falcons' defensive back Brent Grimes earned while defending Saints' receiver Robert Meachem, negating Grimes' interception on the play. It was a weak call at best and New Orleans scored a touchdown a few plays later. This was the infamous play in which photographers caught Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith red-faced and slamming his headset against the ground in anger. If there was no call on the play, then the Saints could have potentially lost a touchdown and, again, the Falcons might have won.
Of course, all of this highly speculative, but that's the fun of looking back after the fact, isn't it? The Cowboys and Packers both own 8-3 conference records so the Falcons would have had to have won all three of those games and at that point they would be 11-4 today – which is a highly improbable idea.
If nothing else, this exercise shows why NFL coaches are the demanding taskmasters that they are. I've heard coach Smith in his Monday press conferences talk about how games are won and lost on about five or six plays in a game. Sometimes it's one play. And so a season also can come down to five or six plays. If those above had gone the other way, the Falcons could be getting ready for the playoffs next week. Instead, they will have to think about what might have been.