An Early Look At The NFL Playoff Picture: How The 4-1 Atlanta Falcons Stand

ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 19: Jason Snelling #44 of the Atlanta Falcons trotts off the field after their 41-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Georgia Dome on September 19 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Starting a season 4-1 hasn't always guaranteed success in the playoffs. We analyze the past trends and attempt to predict the 2010 playoff picture.

For the second consecutive season, the Atlanta Falcons have started with four wins in their first five games. In fact, since head coach Mike Smith commandeered a sinking 4-12 team in the 2008 offseason, the Falcons are 11-4 in the first five games of the season. They've coupled their fast starts with fast finishes as well, rolling up a combined 7-3 record in the final five games of 2008 and 2009.

Optimism abounds, but if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Flashback to Oct. 19, 2009: the Falcons had just beaten the Chicago Bears and were sitting at 4-1. Coming off a playoff season the year before, the sky was the limit. That's when the bottom fell out. Six losses in the next eight games had the Falcons eliminated from  playoff contention before Christmas.

Will this team suffer the same fate? Barring injuries, the short answer is no.

The 2010 version is all kinds of superior to the 2009 version that finished 9-7. The offense is a well-oiled machine with a variety of weapons that includes the eighth-leading rusher (Michael Turner) and the second-leading receiver (Roddy White) and now can welcome back the return of Michael Jenkins after being out since August 6.

The defense is leaps and bounds ahead of last year's team. The maturation of William Moore and Kroy Biermann along with the impact of rookies Sean Weatherspoon and Corey Peters have made this defense the second-stingiest in the league - allowing only 14 points per game.

I have every confidence this team will finish 13-3 - as I predicted - and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. However, (has Stephen A. Smith ruined that word for everyone else too?) we need to look at the math - don't worry, they'll be no homework - before we start buying our Super Bowl tickets.

Over the past three seasons, 12 teams have started 4-1. Of those 12, only seven have parlayed their fast start into a playoff berth. That's 58 percent. The full chart beckons.

After Five Games (Since 2007)
Record
Made Playoffs
Missed Playoffs
Percentage
5-0
7
2
78
4-1
7
5
58
3-2
15
12
56
2-3
7
19
27
1-4
0
14
0
0-5
0
8
0

 

So far this year, they are eight teams that have one loss. **Since some teams have had byes already, for the sake of this breakout, the loss column is what matters. 3-1 teams are grouped with 4-1 teams and the inverse is also true.** This means that of those eight teams, we can expect to see about four teams (4.7) make the playoffs.

Using the current standings, the chart above and my patent-pending Unbiased Power Rankings, let's take a stab at guessing the playoff teams.

Here's what we know. There's no 5-0 teams, so that 78 percent gets thrown back into the mix. We can eliminate all the one-win and winless teams since they are a combined 0 for 22 since 2007. Goodbye, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers.

Since the AFC has higher ranked teams, some adjustments were made to complete the playoff picture.

Of the eight one-loss teams, only four can make it.

In:

Out:

We have twelve two-loss teams and only six can get in.

In:

Out:

And finally the numbers tell us that two teams from the group of seven with three losses will make a playoff run.

In:

Out:

After all the madness, we are left with this.

In the NFC, the playoff teams will be:

  • Falcons
  • Cardinals
  • Giants
  • Redskins
  • Packers
  • Rams

And in the AFC:

  • Ravens
  • Steelers
  • Jets
  • Texans
  • Colts
  • Chargers

That's a far cry from what many of us thought would happen when we made our preseason prognostications. Then again, when has the NFL been predictable? Black is East, up is white. The next eleven weeks is sure to bring a lot of surprises but one thing's for certain, the standings in October can look drastically different come January.

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