Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 11/22/11
Falcons coach Mike Smith would never acknowledge it, but of the top four teams competing for a wildcard berth in the NFC playoffs, his team has the easiest schedule. It proved murder early on three of the first four on the road (those road games coming against teams that either qualified for the playoffs last season or posted at least 10 wins) and home dates with Philadelphia and Green Bay and plenty of Falcons fans were alarmed by the teams 2-3 start. But the Falcons survived. Following their Nov. 13 game against New Orleans, the Falcons schedule is mostly cake and now they are catching some breaks. Breaks like the 2-8 Vikings coming to town on Sunday most likely without running back Adrian Peterson (high-ankle sprain). Like visiting Houston (7-3), once seemingly the AFCs top team, the following week without quarterback Matt Schaub (broken foot). Its not worth asking Smith about the quality of the Falcons upcoming schedule he takes every game and every opponent too seriously but, in hindsight, he admits what a meat grinder the start was. We had a tough stretch to start the season, he said. We knew that. Thats why we made the decision to take the week off during the bye week to get our guys re-energized, as well as the coaching staff, to give them some time off. This three-game home stand has come at the right time for us, for sure, as a team. Of the Falcons remaining opponents, their combined record is 25-35 with the most difficult teams being Houston and New Orleans the latter on Monday, Dec. 26, looming as the game that could determine the NFC South title or the Falcons wildcard hopes. Chicago (7-3), which currently occupies one of the two top wildcard spots, has the next easiest schedule. The Bears remaining opponents collective record is 31-29, but remove Green Bay (10-0) and that record skews much softer at 21-29. The Bears, however, will most likely have to play the remainder of their season without starting quarterback Jay Cutler (broken finger), so their future is by no means certain. Having defeated the Falcons in the season opener, they have a leg up on Atlanta. Detroit (7-3), the other team currently in possession of one of the conferences top two wildcard spots, has the hardest remaining schedule. The Lions face the Packers twice, including on Thanksgiving, and their opponents combined record is 39-21. They also play two other division leaders, New Orleans and Oakland. Having defeated the Lions, the Falcons stand a good chance of catching Detroit. The New York Giants are tied with Dallas at 6-4 for the top spot in the NFC East but their 3-4 conference record puts them two games behind the Cowboys for the first tiebreaker in terms of winning the division. The Giants also face a daunting schedule. The play New Orleans, Green Bay, Dallas twice (games that could determine their fate) and the New York Jets, who have a deceiving 5-5 mark. The Giants remaining opponents hold a 37-23 record. (The Cowboys opponents have the combined record of 26-34, although the Giants are the only team currently with a winning record on their schedule.) So on paper, the Falcons prospects look bright for a third playoff season in Smiths four as head coach. The Falcons have won four out of five and seem to be trending upwards. I believe that were still not playing as consistent as we need to play, but were playing more consistent than we were through the first five games of the season, he said on Monday. I think the things that are going to make us the team that we want to be is that weve got to play with consistency, weve got to play with focus and weve got to play smart. I dont know that weve put all three of those things together like we would like in one football game. Alas, every team is a work in progress. Smith said the major areas that the Falcons need to address are red-zone efficiency which had been a strength prior to playing the Saints -- and penalties. Weve had two games now where we are two-for-nine, so it is an area of concern, he said of the red zone. Its not just one area that sticks out. We cant have untimely penalties that will knock you out of the red zone or put you in a situation where you are behind the sticks. That has happened. Smith would not say that he feels the team has momentum and tight end Tony Gonzalez, following Sundays win over Tennessee, also said the Falcons are not where they want to be. Yet. We gotta start getting hot and I think were almost there, Gonzalez said. Were not there yet and really it starts by putting points on the board If we just go out there and do what were capable of doing, we can beat any team in the league. Thats the way I feel. Not there yet, but, maybe, in a game or two, they will be and the playoffs again will be within their grasp.
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