On the night of Sept. 15, the Falcons beat Philadelphia. They were 1-1. Hours earlier, New Orleans had fallen to the Rams and lost Drew Brees to an injured thumb. The Saints were likewise 1-1 and about to face at least a month without their starting quarterback. Also of note: Carolina had lost three nights earlier to Tampa Bay to slip to 0-2, and something was obviously amiss with Cam Newton.
On the morning of Sept. 16, you might well have tagged the Falcons as the new NFC South favorites. But look now.
The Falcons, working with their No. 1 quarterback in every game save the most recent, haven't won since. The Saints, working without their No. 1 quarterback in every game save the most recent, haven't lost since. The Panthers, working without their No. 1 quarterback in every game since, have won five of six.
On Sept. 15, the Falcons and Saints were tied. Today, the Saints hold a six-game lead over their ancient enemy with eight games remaining. The Panthers are four games ahead of the Falcons. Everything in the NFL revolves around the quarterback, and here the Falcons saw their chief divisional rivals absorb what should have been devastating blows – and somehow the team that got devastated was the one that kept Matt Ryan healthy until the end of its seventh game.
This goes to show ... what? That the Saints and Panthers built stronger rosters than the Falcons? For sure. That the Saints and Panthers are better coached? Absolutely. That the Panthers and especially the Saints have gotten good at winning close games at a time when the Falcons struggle to keep any game close? That, too.
Knowing all that, it's still difficult to grasp how completely the Falcons have collapsed. Football Outsiders, in its proprietary DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings, slots this offense as the 19th-best in a 32-team league, this defense the 30th-best and these special teams the absolute worst. The 2018 Falcons weren't very good, but they had the eighth-best offense and the 10th-best special teams. (Defense was No. 31, though.) They've come off a supposed aberration of a season and made it look as if 7-9 was an overachievement.
But here's the crazy part: After going nearly two calendar months without seeing the Falcons winning; after seeing them outscored by 94 points over eight first halves; after noting that Football Outsiders affords them a 7.0% chance of landing the No. 1 overall draft pick and an 0.0 chance of making the playoffs ... even then, it's possible to envision a not-awful second half.
Not because they've shuffled more coaches. Dan Quinn leads the world in that if nothing else, and this latest move with Raheem Morris – switching him to defense, three-plus years after he switched him from defense to offense – tells us the head coach has no idea what to do with Raheem Morris. If these Falcons are to give us any sort of a finish, it will be because good players will remember that they're still good players. It's impossible to imagine a team of such talent finishing 2-14.
(Then again, it was impossible to imagine such a team being 1-7. So maybe I should shut up, huh?)
At issue is what the Falcons, in their heart of hearts, hope to get from these final eight games. That's not the same as what they say for publication they hope to get. Maybe some of them want out of here. Maybe so many of them have heard that iron sharpens iron so often that they want the king of bromides gone. If that's the case, they need only to keep doing what they've been doing, which is stinking out the joint. If they want him back – players do tend to prefer the devil they know – they'd better win some games, though it's unclear if anything could save Quinn.
It's mathematically possible for these Falcons to have a winning season. They just can't lose again. It's clear Arthur M. Blank doesn't want to fire Quinn – if he did, he'd have done it weeks ago – and the high-profile owner could take 9-7 or 8-8 as proof that his beloved coach Hasn't Lost The Team and that DQ's guys Kept Playing Hard and dump another batch of coordinators instead. But here again we reacquaint ourselves with reality.
The Falcons could get to 9-7 and not qualify for postseason. Nine NFC teams have five wins. Six NFC teams will make the playoffs. The Falcons are 3 1/2 games behind the ninth-place team in this conference. (That's Philadelphia, the lone team to lose to the Falcons.)
The one NFL team to rise from 1-6 to the playoffs – no team has done it from 1-7 – was Cincinnati in 1970. The Bengals won their final seven games. None of those came against a team that finished above .500. Four came against teams that won three or fewer games. The Falcons still have home-and-homes against the Saints and the Panthers, and on Dec. 15 they'll play in San Francisco.
I didn't do one of those week-by-week prediction things for this season. (Good thing, or I'd have been wrong five or six times already.) I won't attempt to handicap the final half. I will, however, offer this: It wouldn't be shocking if the Falcons, er, rose up and sprang an upset two. This being the any-given-Sunday league, it's hard for even a bad team to lose single Sunday. And there is – true confession – a part of me that still has a hard time seeing the Falcons as hopeless.
Then I recheck the record. To suggest this is the most gifted 1-7 team in NFL annals shouldn't be taken as compliment. It's the furthest thing from a compliment. There's no way the Falcons should be 1-7, but here they are.