Here at Shutdown Corner, we want to help. So once a week, we'll go in and examine a team coming off a bad week, bad month, maybe a bad decade (you're in luck, Cleveland), and see what fixes can be made to turn around the season. So step aside, we've got this. Next under the microscope: the battered, beleaguered Atlanta Falcons.
Current status: 1-4, four (!) games behind New Orleans in the NFC South.
What's gone right: Well, the Falcons have been in every single one of their losses right to the final minutes, either driving with a chance to win or holding the lead only needing to keep the other team from scoring. That's good. Atlanta also ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards and third in passing yards. Also good. And the Falcons have Matt Ryan, one of the better players at his position; Tony Gonzalez, the greatest ever at his position; and Julio Jones, the best in the league at his position. What could possibly go wrong?
What's gone wrong: Everything. Start with the injuries. New running back Stephen Jackson has been out most of the season, receiver Roddy White has been hobbled all year, and fellow receiver Julio Jones is now most likely out for the year. Combine that with some dubious coaching and you'd have a wobbly team. But throw in the fact that the defense seems to be throwing out only about eight players on the field at a time, and you've got this staggering, shambling mess of a team that was one play from the Super Bowl just last January.
What can be fixed: Start with the D. Geno Smith and Tom Brady — yes, this is the first time those two have been mentioned together in the same context — were both able to methodically pick apart the Falcons' secondary. Had Atlanta been able to make a stand in either game, the Falcons would be 3-2 and we wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead, we're looking at a defense that's as befuddled as your dad playing Madden. Ryan is good enough, especially with Gonzalez as his safety blanket, to distribute the ball around the field to even a Julio-less receiving corps, and Jackson's return will diversify a run game that, honestly, hasn't been that awful with Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons can make plays on offense, but they can't keep digging themselves out of the holes that the defense creates for them.
The road ahead: With Tampa Bay, Arizona and Carolina immediately ahead, Atlanta could fight its way back to .500 by midseason. Problem is, Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco loom down the line. For Atlanta, 9-7 isn't unreasonable, but 9-7 isn't going to get it done in the packed NFC. There's also the matter of whether Gonzalez will even be with the team in a few weeks. Reports are circulating that Gonzalez could be dealt to the Patriots, Ravens or Chiefs, all of whom would represent a jump in the standings.
Can Atlanta turn this thing around?: Look, I've been a fan of the Falcons since the days of Steve Bartkowski, William Andrews and Fulton Kuykendall. (Yes, we writers are fans of teams too. Commence your misspelled "biased" arguments.) But my eternal fan optimism is no match for the harsh reality that right now, the Falcons stink on ice. And without Jones or anything resembling a real defense, this team isn't going to get much better, even when Jackson and White are up to full strength.
Plus, there's the problem of where exactly the team would fit into the playoffs, given that there's realistically only going to be one slot available. Barring a Crescent City catastrophe, Atlanta's not winning the South, and Seattle/San Francisco have one wild card slot locked up. That leaves Atlanta fighting with half a dozen other halfway decent teams for one position. It's doable, but without some of its key weapons, Atlanta's got a tough fight on its hands.
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