All week long I had been wanting to ask Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith which was his favorite NFC East team. Of course, putting it that way would be less than professional. What I really wanted to know was whether he had analyzed the playoff scenarios to see which NFC East team or teams the Falcons needed to win to give them the best shot of earning one of the two Wild Card berths in the conference.
The Falcons went 1-3 against the powerhouse division this season, losing to all three teams ahead of them in the standings: Dallas&t=h "Dallas") (8-4), the Eagles (8-4) and the New York Giants (7-5). On Thursday -- a day when interview sessions with the coach can be more informal because there are fewer television cameras present and cameras tend to make anyone speak a little less freely -- I decided to ask the question.
With the utmost in professional phraseology, of course.
"That's what I let you guys do," Smith said. "I'm sure over the next couple of weeks the scenarios will fall into place for all the teams and I think it's a little bit too early. We've finished three quarters of season and we still have a one quarter left, so there's still a lot of football to be played."
OK, in that case, I decided to do as he said and do the work myself.
Essentially, my belief is the Falcons need to forget about catching Green Bay (8-4), winners of four straight, and the Eagles, who have won three straight, and hope that both the Giants and Dallas implode.
Here are some numbers.
Green Bay faces the weakest schedule. Their remaining opponents are 24-25. Today they are at Chicago (5-7), then they are at Pittsburgh (6-7), whose season might unravel now after losing on Thursday to lowly Cleveland; at home against Seattle (5-7) and then they finish at Arizona (8-4), which should have the NFC West locked up by then and could be resting its best players in that season finale.
That muddled NFC East race will go a long way towards finding some clarity tonight when the Eagles and Giants play in the Meadowlands. After that, the Eagles, whose remaining opponents are 28-20, have San Francisco (5-7) at home, Denver (8-4) at home and finish with Dallas (8-4) on the road. That's a pretty tough schedule, but the Eagles are on that current winning streak.
The Falcons need the Eagles to win the division title and remove themselves from the Wild Card race. Now, for the Giants, whose remaining opponents are 26-22. If the Falcons win today and the Giants lose to the Eagles, both teams will be tied at 7-6. Next up for the Giants is a gutsy Washington team (3-9) on the road, Carolina (5-7) at home and Minnesota on the road (10-2).
Finally, Dallas, the team best known for having bad Decembers.
The Cowboys are off to the right start, from the Falcons' perspective, having dropped one to the Giants last week and upped the pressure on themselves in a big way. (If no one noticed, ex-Falcon Keith Brooking had an outburst during the week, lashing out at the media for its criticism of the team and Head Coach Wade Phillips for its December performances in recent years).
The Cowboys face the most difficult schedule remaining. Their opponents are 32-16. It starts today with San Diego&t=h "San Diego") (9-3), winners of seven straight. Next up are the Saints (12-0). Then they go on the road to Washington (3-9) -- a team they barely beat 7-6 in their earlier meeting, needing a late score to do so. They finish up with the Eagles (8-4).
So there you go. If the Falcons go 3-1 or 4-0 down the stretch to finish 9-7 or 10-6, they can make it, but they cannot beat Dallas or the Giants in a tiebreaker situation because the first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition and the Falcons lost to both. If Dallas goes 1-3, the Falcons have to go 4-0 or if Dallas goes 0-4, the Falcons can go 3-1. If the Giants go 2-2, the Falcons can leap ahead of them by going 4-0 or if the Giants go 1-3 the Falcons can make it by going 3-1.
The Falcons need help, but the scenarios are not implausible.
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