ATLANTA -- If you go by observation, common sense and a bunch of other "things," the Falcons shouldn't be in the NFL playoffs, which means they're on the verge of back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl.
I'm mostly saying the Falcons are significantly flawed, but they keep flashing signs of becoming the NFL's version of the Amazin' Mets who stunned everybody and themselves to grab the 1969 World Series title out of nowhere. Then again, maybe the Falcons are something like the pro football reincarnation of that Miracle on Ice team from the 1980 Winter Games. Either that, or they're in the vicinity of Jim Valvano's North Carolina State group that shocked Phi Slamma Jamma to become 1983 college basketball champs.
This is for sure: The Falcons slid into the postseason as an NFC wild-cards team with the flimsiest of 10-6 records, but they're surviving and advancing, just like Valvano used to demand of his Wolfpack teams that were historically underdogs through March Madness. First, the Falcons smashed the NFC West-winning Rams on the road last week, and get this: Even though they're a No. 6 seed, they're the Las Vegas favorites to handle the No. 1 seed Eagles on Saturday in Philadelphia for rights to play in the NFC championship game. If the Falcons do that, they'll go against the survivor of Sunday's matchup between the Saints and the Vikings.
Simple? Yeah, but not so much for a red zone-challenged team on offense, especially since the Falcons' most valuable player down the stretch of the regular season and the playoffs is named Matt.
No, not Ryan, but Bryant.
I'm talking about Matt Bryant, the field goal kicker.
In addition, this is a Falcons team that has struggled with throwing passes and catching them. This is a Falcons team that often makes more huge mistakes than its opponents during games. This is a Falcons team that gave mighty bucks before the season to running back Devonta Freeman, and he's always one smack away from taking his smallish frame to the bench for long stretches after suffering three concussions in three years, including two this season.
There are those other "things," too.
The Shanahan Thing. Kyle Shanahan is the head coach of the 49ers these days instead of the offensive coordinator of the Falcons. He spent last season as their flawless play-caller. OK, I know. He contributed to their Super Bowl meltdown from a 28-3 lead to a loss down the stretch with a pass (which turned into a strip sack for the Patriots) instead of a clock-killing run. It's just that Shanahan's genius got the Falcons to the Super Bowl. They're averaging about two touchdowns less per game without him.
The Matt Ryan Thing. Courtesy of Shanahan, Ryan was named NFL MVP after one of the greatest years ever for a quarterback. Not only did he throw a touchdown in all 16 of his games during the regular season, but he completed one to an NFL-record 13 different receivers. Such things happen when you're successful throwing 70 percent of the time for a 117.1 passer rating, 4,994 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Ryan wasn't anywhere near those numbers this past regular season after completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 4,095 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The Turnover Thing. The Falcons were fourth in the NFL last season in turnover margin at plus-11. They collapsed to 19th in the league this season at minus-2. Worse, the Titans joined the Falcons as the only playoff team this season in negative numbers.
The Dropped Passes Thing. Both the Falcons and the 49ers sat at the bottom of the NFL during the regular season with 29 dropped passes, and which Falcons player had the most? Julio Jones with seven, and he's their star receiver.
So given all of that, there is no way the Falcons should become the first team since the 1993 Buffalo Bills to lose a Super Bowl and return the next year. But there was no way the Falcons should have won their opening game this season in Chicago. With the visitors trying to protect a six-point lead during the final seconds, the Bears had first-and-goal from Atlanta's five-yard line, but the Falcons were fortunate these were the Bears instead of somebody good. The Bears botched the next four plays in comical ways.
Then there was the Falcons' game at Detroit, where the Lions really did score a game-winning TD at the end. The referees said as much with hands raised toward the sky, but the relay folks said otherwise. Still, since eight seconds remained and the ball was inches from the goal line, the Lions had a likely victory at hand, but an obscure entry in the NFL rulebook said otherwise. The situation led to something known as a 10-second runoff.
Game over. Falcons don't lose. Just like the Falcons survived in New York against the Jets despite fumbling four snaps from center. Two were recovered by the home team, but the Jets were just about as dreadful as the Bears.
Later during the regular season, the Falcons defeated the Seahawks in Seattle after they nearly blew a 14-point lead -- you know, just as they eventually did blow a 17-point lead earlier in the season to the Dolphins. The Falcons also choked away a 10-point advantage in Charlotte to the Panthers. Let's just say that unlike the Dolphins and the Panthers, the Seahawks didn't beat Atlanta since their 52-yard field goal to tie the game near the end fell just shy of the crossbar. That sounds like the Falcons' trip to Tampa, where the Buccaneers couldn't tie things when their 54-yard field goal sailed went wide right at the buzzer.
In between those games, the Falcons battled the Saints and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees in a thriller. With the Falcons ahead by three, he moved his team to Atlanta's 11-yard line for a second down play in the final seconds. If nobody was open, Brees knew from his extensive Pro Bowl resume that he had to throw the ball away to allow his kicker to attempt a game-tying field goal. Nobody was open, but Brees fired anyway to the end zone, where Falcons linebacker Deion Jones made a circus interception.
See what I mean? These Falcons are charmed, and this playoff-seasoned bunch was even blessed to open the first round against a slew of Rams who looked spooked during the first trip to the playoffs. As for the Eagles, they are slightly more January savvy than the Rams, but they haven't been the same since Nick Foltz became their starting quarterback after a late-season injury to Carson Wentz, a rising leader who inspired everybody around him.
If the Falcons defeat the Eagles and meet either the Vikings or the Saints in the NFC championship game, it's been there, done that for a team with a surprisingly potent defense that continues to improve. In fact, the Falcons dropped a 14-9 defensive struggle to the Vikings in early December, and they split their yearly two games against the Saints, their archrivals in the NFC South.
The point is, the Falcons are closer to making the third Super Bowl trip in their history than you think.
They're probably closer than they think.