Coming off of their bye week the Falcons are still alive in the NFC playoff picture, but they have little margin for error and will need to play their best football in the coming weeks to make a serious run at the postseason. If recent history tells us anything, it’s that the Falcons can do just that.
In the last two seasons under Dan Quinn, Atlanta has played its best football in the second half of the season.
During their memorable 2016 season the Falcons earned a 6-4 record heading into their bye week in Week 11, but one of the main storylines was that Atlanta didn’t have a defense capable of making it a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
In their first 10 games that season, the Falcons’ defense gave up an average of 27 points and 386 yards while starting several rookies and dealing with a few injuries. The offense shouldered much of the load in that time, averaging 30 points and 416 yards.
When given the bye week to get things cleaned up, Quinn and his staff did just that. Over the final six games the Falcons’ defense looked vastly improved, holding teams to an average of 19 points and 346 yards, while the offense picked up the pace slightly, scoring 34 points on average.
During that stretch, the Falcons went 5-1 with their only loss coming on the bizarre pick-two at the end of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last season, that trend continued. Because the Falcons’ bye week occurred very early in the season in Week 5, I’ve split the 2017 season into direct halves as a way to compare the team’s play.
Atlanta began the 2017 season on a three-game win streak, but it dropped four of its next five games to head into Week 10 with a 4-4 record, similar to where the Falcons currently stand.
Over their first eight games, the Falcons’ offense averaged 20 points and 372 yards while the defense allowed an average of 20 points and 322 yards. Instead of playing in the shootouts that defined 2016, last year’s Falcons were in many tight, lower-scoring games.
Although they didn’t have a full bye week to correct some of the issues from the first half of the season, the Falcons continued to improve during their final eight contests. There were no clear or drastic changes on either side of the ball but rather a rounding into form for the Falcons, who averaged 22 points and 358 yards on offense and allowed an average of 18 points and 315 yards on defense.
The statistics don’t matter as much as the record does. Atlanta found its stride in time for a run to the postseason, going 6-2 in its last eight games and punching its ticket to the playoffs in a season-finale win against the Carolina Panthers.
There are undoubtedly some who will point to the 2015 season as a contrasting point, and that’s fair to some extent. That season, the Falcons won their first five games and held a 6-3 record heading into their Week 10 bye. After their bye week, Atlanta went 2-5 and missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
The 2015 season was also the very first of the Quinn era, and shouldn’t carry the same weight as the previous two years. While he was the man in charge at that time, the team didn’t fully reflect his vision and his culture was still being implement.
Since then, the Falcons have been a good team during the second half of the season.
This year may be the most challenging one yet for Quinn and the Falcons coaching staff. The Falcons have placed six key starters on injured reserve this season, which has left them teaching and coaching on the fly.
Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones could return as early as the Falcons-Cowboys game in Week 11 and running back Devonta Freeman could be back at some point late this season, but Atlanta will still be far below full strength when that happens. And to make things even more difficult for the Falcons in the coming weeks, six of their final nine games will be on the road.
Still, the bye week provided the Falcons with their first opportunity to take a breath and figure some things out without also having to prepare for an upcoming opponent, and we’ve seen what Quinn and his staff can do when given some time.
They have nine games remaining to reach the playoffs for the third consecutive year. The Falcons were 6-2 during the back half of the 2017 season, and they went 5-1 after their bye week in 2016. If that 11-3 mark means anything it’s that the Falcons shouldn’t be counted out just yet.