A victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Atlanta last November started a 6-2 closing run by the Falcons that gave them an NFC wild-card berth.
If either of the teams is going to make the playoff this season, it will likely have to mount an even better finish to the regular season.
The host Falcons and Cowboys each come into Sunday’s game with disappointing 4-5 records, but it may be Dallas that has the most realistic postseason hopes this year.
The Cowboys have a shot at the NFC East title as well as a wild-card spot and are coming off an encouraging 27-20 victory at the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
“It was absolutely mandatory that we went and got this win,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said afterwards. “We wanted to keep our hopes up for winning this division and making the playoffs.”
The Falcons, meanwhile, took a step in the other direction as they saw a three-game winning streak snapped with a dismal 28-16 loss at the lowly Cleveland Browns and have virtually no chance of catching the streaking New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
“I told the team I thought we took a step back,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s tough to see and tough so say. I also told them that we have to regroup.”
Atlanta has beaten the Cowboys in their last three meetings, but the Falcons didn’t have to deal with Elliott, who was serving a suspension, in last year’s 27-7 victory that featured eight sacks of quarterback Dak Prescott.
Elliott rushed for 151 yards last week against the Eagles and the Falcons’ tackling issues were exposed again against the Browns, as rookie Nick Chubb gashed them for 176 yards on the ground.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker Deon Jones is eligible to return for the Falcons after spending eight weeks on IR with a broken foot, but he is unlikely to play against Dallas.
“We will put him out there when he’s 100 percent,” Quinn said.
The Cowboys have yet to win consecutive games this season, so it won’t be easy to put together the winning streak they likely need to reach the postseason.
“We have another big challenge going to Atlanta this week, going against a very good football team,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “That’s where our focus is.”
Just 13.9 percent of teams that have started 4-5 have historically qualified for the postseason.
“For the rest of the season our backs are going to be against the wall,” Elliott said. “We have to do the best we can to go out there and try to win every one of these last games. I’m sure those guys on the other side are the same way.”
The Falcons were in the Super Bowl just two years ago and this season’s title game is in Atlanta. Ravaged by injuries, the team has been a major disappointment, but fans were holding out hope until the debacle in Cleveland.
“We were all (ticked) and disappointed,” Quinn said. “But just like when were 1-4, we didn’t plan on staying there. We certainly aren’t backing off what we think we can get done this season.”
—Field Level Media