Guerry Clegg commentary: Falcons face must-win situation against Jets

October 5, 2013 

Monday night's game against the New York Jets is as much of a must-win game that the Falcons have played before Thanksgiving since Mike Smith and Matt Ryan breathed new life into the franchise. It's not so much that a win over a bad team would magically cure their ails. They would still be 2-3. But a loss would leave them 1-4, and virtually out of the playoff race.

The three teams the Falcons have lost to are a combined 11-1. They could have beaten New Orleans and should have beaten Miami. And even though they were thoroughly outplayed by New England, one play would have changed that game entirely.

So the Falcons should be 2-2, easily could be 3-1 and even possibly 4-0 without playing that much better. But the reality is they are 1-3, already three games behind the Saints in the NFC South and losing ground in the NFC wild card race.

Thus, Monday night's game is an absolute must win. And so is the following game (Tampa Bay) and the one after that (Arizona) and the one after that (Carolina).

But here is the hopeful news for the Falcons. They should win all four of those games. If they do, that would put them 5-3 at the season's halfway mark.

If they go 6-2 in the second half, they would finish 11-5. Historically, that is good enough to make the playoffs. Since the NFL realigned into four divisions, only one team, New England in 2008, won 11 games and failed to make the playoffs.

Remember, this season is going to be defined by what happens in the postseason, not the regular season. Now more than ever, home-field advantage means less in the playoffs than simply playing well at the right time. Four of the last six Super Bowl champions lost six or more regular season games. Before that, the San Francisco 49ers in 1988 were the only team to do that.

The difference is the salary cap has reduced the gap between teams. Every team has flaws. Cap restrictions force teams to release or simply not re-sign productive players. Thus, injuries play a bigger part now than ever before.

The Falcons will be without middle linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and running back Stephen Jackson for half the season. Left tackle Sam Baker will miss Monday night's game. Wide receiver Roddy White has not been completely healthy all year. As these players return, the Falcons will be a better team.

They're going to have to be. The second half of the schedule is a killer. Four of those games are against possibly the top four teams in the NFC -- Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco. They also must play improving Buffalo. So going 6-2, or even 5-3, against that group of teams will be challenging.

And that just makes winning these next four games all the more imperative.

As tough as the early schedule has been, the Falcons' biggest problem has been themselves. The defense still gives up too many big plays. The offense has been surprisingly inconsistent. Dropped balls by receivers, occasional misfires by Ryan. The pass protection has been spotty. The power running game has been non-existent.

These are the deficiencies the Falcons need to shore up before playing Seattle. If they do, they still have a chance to be as good as any team in the NFC. But if they lose Monday night, their season is all but over.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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