By Matthew Asher
The Atlanta Falcons should send the Denver Broncos a thank you note this week. After already defeating the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, Atlanta needed to wait until Sunday to find out if they would already qualify for the playoffs. While several games concerned the Falcons’ playoff standings, none was more urgent than the Denver-Tampa Bay game played at Mile High. If Denver won, Atlanta wins the NFC South. By 8pm EST, the Falcons learned the answer.
Defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, the Denver Broncos secured the AFC West title for themselves as well as the NFC South title for the Falcons. There are still four games left for Atlanta to play, but with the NFC South title, one thing is clear: Atlanta’s first playoff game will be a home game.
By winning their division, Atlanta is guaranteed one of the top four spots in their conference. If the Falcons ends up number three or four, they would have to play the first week of the NFL Playoffs. The number four team hosts the number five team and the number three team hosts the number six team. If Atlanta ends up number one or two, the Falcons get a bye week and then play the winner from the first week of the playoffs. The number one team would host the winner of the six versus four game, while the number two team hosts the winner of the five versus three game.
With Sunday over, a few of the underdog teams did hand potential Falcons’ playoff opponents losses. Seattle beat Chicago 23-17 and St. Louis beat San Francisco 16-13, with both games going into overtime before being decided.
As it currently stands, Atlanta has the number one spot. The San Francisco 49ers would get the number two spot and the bye week just like Atlanta. The first two matchups would be Green Bay hosting Seattle and New York hosting Chicago.
With a three-game lead in the conference, Atlanta will likely get the top playoff spot like they did in 2010. Atlanta needs to win two of their four final games to be assured of a number one playoff spot, since no other team has fewer than three losses. With two games coming up against Tampa and Carolina, teams Atlanta already defeated this season, it seems like the top NFC spot will go to Atlanta.
But with the slim margin that San Francisco currently has, expect these rankings to change quickly and often until the final week of the regular season. Why? Because San Francisco’s tie with the Rams earlier in the season means that the 49ers have just a half-game lead over both the Bears and Packers.
As Falcons fans of late are well aware, having home field advantage doesn’t guarantee success in the playoffs. The last two seasons Atlanta has lots their first home playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl Champion, including the 2010 Falcons who lost to the number six spot Green Bay Packers.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Falcons news, see CBS Sports Atlanta.
Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.