Dec 31, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) drops back to pass against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Taylor Heinicke hurting, Falcons cling to fragile playoff hopes

With one week remaining in the regular season, the Atlanta Falcons are down to a wing and a prayer when it comes to miniscule hopes for the playoffs.

And in what has become a recurring theme, the Falcons may need to switch quarterbacks when they visit the New Orleans Saints in Week 18.

The Falcons (7-9) suffered a 37-17 loss at the Chicago Bears on New Year’s Eve to fall into third place in the NFC South. Late in the game, starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke injured his left ankle and was replaced by Desmond Ridder.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith told reporters Monday that the team should “have a good idea by Friday” whether Heinicke will be able to play in the critical game at New Orleans.

“Obviously, he’s going to do everything he can to play,” Smith said of Heinicke. “We’ll have to monitor that. … I know Taylor. He’s going to put everything he can into trying to go.”

Ridder and Heinicke have swapped spots on the depth chart three times this season due to both injury and ineffectiveness. Heinicke is the more experienced of the two, but he tossed three interceptions and just one touchdown on 10-of-29 passing Sunday against the Bears.

Ridder completed three passes and threw one pick in relief of Heinicke. He has been turnover-prone all season, with 11 interceptions and six lost fumbles.

Heinicke hurt his ankle in a Week 16 win over the Indianapolis Colts and was limited in practice throughout last week, meaning Ridder took plenty of reps in his place.

Smith, who has faced questions about his job security toward the end of his third season in Atlanta, has been dealt plenty of adversity at the most important position in football.

“It’s like a lot of things in life. What you can control and how you react to things and having plans is part of your job,” Smith said. “Obviously what you’re doing at that position, that’s why you always got to make sure everybody’s ready to go, because it’s real.”

With that in mind, the Falcons turn to their final division game of the season. They have only one path to reach the playoffs following Week 17 results.

Only if the Falcons beat the Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose to the cellar-dwelling Carolina Panthers could Atlanta sneak into the postseason. In that scenario, a three-way tie atop the division at 8-9 favors Atlanta. The Falcons have the tiebreaker by virtue of having the best head-to-head record against the other two clubs (3-1).

The Saints (8-8) have won three of their last four games, including a big 23-13 win at Tampa Bay last Sunday to keep their division hopes alive. Derek Carr threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-32 passing.

Ridder was the Falcons’ quarterback when they beat the Saints 24-15 on Nov. 26 in Atlanta. He threw for a touchdown and two interceptions, while Bijan Robinson had 91 rushing yards, 32 receiving yards and two scores in that one.

“Any time we play New Orleans, it’s a big deal,” Smith said. “Certainly this game’s got a lot on the line. I know that some of it’s out of our control, but again, that’s our own doing, right? To not control your own (destiny). But we gotta get ready to go and put everything we got and go beat New Orleans.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 5, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) warms up before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Cardinals, Bucs, Packers have shot to lock up playoff spots

Three NFC teams have a chance to lock up postseason berths by the end of Week 14 play on Monday.

The Arizona Cardinals (10-2) host the Los Angeles Rams (8-4) on “Monday Night Football,” and they’ll clinch a playoff berth with a win or tie. A win would also reduce their magic number to one to clinch the NFC West.

Even if they don’t win, they would earn at least a wild-card berth if other events occur, which include a loss or tie by the Minnesota Vikings and a San Francisco 49ers loss.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) host the Buffalo Bills (7-5) on Sunday afternoon. The Bucs will clinch the NFC South title with a win and a loss or tie by both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.

They also could seal a playoff spot if they tie the Bills and the following happens: losses by the Panthers, Saints and Vikings, and losses or ties by the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Football Team.

For the Green Bay Packers (9-3), it will take a win Sunday night in their home game against the Chicago Bears (4-8), plus a Minnesota loss or tie, to win the NFC North title. They also could achieve that milestone if they tie the Bears and the Vikings lose.

The Packers would clinch a playoff berth, though not the division title, if they win and the 49ers lose and the Saints lose or tie their game.

In another scenario, they’d make the postseason if the Saints lose or tie, the Rams lose, and the 49ers tie.

The Week 14 schedule includes the following games that have a bearing on the playoff hunt:
Pittsburgh (6-5-1) at Minnesota (5-7)
New Orleans (5-7) at New York Jets (3-9)
Atlanta (5-7) at Carolina (5-7)
San Francisco (6-6) at Cincinnati (7-5)

–Field Level Media

Dec 13, 2020; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins (73) and offensive guard Ike Boettger (65) celebrate a touchdown catch by wide receiver Gabriel Davis (13) against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Bills Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

NFL playoff scenarios: Bills on verge of AFC East title

Five more NFL teams will have a chance to wrap up a berth in the playoffs in Week 15 — some on their own, others with some help.

Thus far, the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers have clinched spots in the AFC, with the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints set in the NFC.

The Buffalo Bills (10-3) have a clear path to both the playoffs and a division title. A win over the Denver Broncos (5-8) would give them the AFC East championship, as would a Miami Dolphins loss or a Buffalo tie combined with a Miami tie.

Even with a loss, the Bills could seal a playoff spot with a loss by the Baltimore Ravens (8-5) to the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12), or a Buffalo tie and Baltimore tie.

Other scenarios:

The Tennessee Titans (9-4) play the Detroit Lions (5-8) on Sunday and can clinch under the following scenarios: a win and a Baltimore loss; a win, plus a loss or tie by the Las Vegas Raiders and a Miami loss and a Cleveland Browns win or tie; or a win plus a Raiders loss or tie and a Miami loss, giving Tennessee or Cleveland the strength of victory tiebreaker over Miami.

The Los Angeles Rams (9-4) host the New York Jets (0-13) on Sunday. The Rams will earn a playoff berth with a win or tie, or a tie in the Chicago Bears-Minnesota Vikings game.

The Seattle Seahawks (at Washington, 6-7) will clinch with a win or tie, or a tie between the Bears and Vikings.

The Tampa Buccaneers (at Atlanta, 4-9) will earn a berth with a win and a tie between the Bears and Vikings.

Also, the Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) can clinch the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win at the New Orleans Saints (10-3), combined with a loss by the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Bills’ loss or tie.

The Steelers (11-2) play Cincinnati (2-10-1) on Monday night and will clinch the AFC North title with a win, or a Cleveland loss, or if both the Steelers and Browns tie.

Should the Saints beat the Chiefs, they will claim the NFC South title. They also can win it with a Tampa Bay loss, or if both the Saints and Buccaneers tie.

The Packers already have won the NFC North.

–Field Level Media