It's one of the iconic images in boxing. A defeated Roberto Duran, one of the best boxers of his era, turns his back on Sugar Ray Leonard and tilts his battered face toward the referee. He is a man, not a superhero, and he cannot endure the beating he's taking, not with his pride taking as many blows as his body. The fight in him dies.
"No mas," Duran says.
You can complain about the defense bending. You can complain—legitimately—about a frequently listless offense. You can say the Atlanta Falcons don't look like a Super Bowl team, beating a hapless San Francisco 49ers squad on the virtue of a last second field goal. But these Falcons have no Roberto Duran in them.The enduring image from this game will be a determined Roddy White sprinting down the sideline, punching the ball out of Nate Clements' hands and giving the Falcons one more shot at victory.
This doesn't mean that they're transforming into the Indianapolis Colts or New England Patriots of old, teams capable of stomping a mud-hole in opponents so large that half of southern Florida sank into them. They will win ugly again, and they will win in ways that are strange and incomprehensible after middling games that make fans gnash their teeth in frustration.
I think that, more than any other factor, is leading to a sharp divide between Falcons fans. Some of us have been burned so many times by this team that we see the implosion arriving, even if it never comes. Some of us know in our hearts how good this team is, and it is deeply troubling see our brethren calling them out when they've just gotten the win.
I rest somewhere in the middle, with a lean toward optimism. We're 3-1. We're
tied ahead of the Saints. The Falcons have one of the nastiest defense I've enjoyed in my two decades of following the team, and the offense endures its dry spells and comes up with drives that make me rub my eyes in disbelief. It's an exciting team with immense potential, and while no one is suggesting that we should ignore the real issues the Falcons have, I am suggesting you enjoy this ride. The Falcons rarely sit at 3-1 and look so promising.
For more on specific performances, I'm gonna have to ask you to head over the jump.
- I generally start with quarterback and work my way down in these highlights, but Roddy White has to go first.
If he never played again, White would have cemented his legacy as a great Falcon with this performance. He took a backseat to Harry Douglas, Tony Gonzalez and even Michael Turner earlier in the game, but when the game was on the line, he quite literally took matters into his own hands.
He caught four of his seven passes on the last drive. He somehow managed to return from running a route to take the ball away from Nate Clements. He just generally dominated for stretches of his game, finishing up with 104 yards. Roddy White is no longer just the Falcons best receiver. He's one of the NFL's best receivers now, and a guy who wouldn't quit if you tackled him into an alternate dimension.
- When he was on, Matt Ryan looked like the Ryan we've come to enjoy this season. You know, the one who throws crisp passes, moves the ball with efficiency and finds the open man effortlessly. Unfortunately, we didn't see enough of that from Ryan. More on that later.
- Michael Turner catching passes? Buh?
Turner was a force to be reckoned with through the air, and he showed today why he's terrifying when he catches passes. Linebackers and members of the secondary find him to be a real load. Too bad he wasn't as good on the ground.
- Nice little game for Harry Douglas. Three catches for 59 yards and a touchdown, and a helpful informational display about how fast and tough he is once he's got the ball in his hands. If he and Ryan can completely get over their timing issues, Dougie becomes one of the team's most dangerous weapons.
- Can't knock Tony Gonzalez for hauling in seven passes and keeping the chains moving. He was there as a binky today—in this analogy, a hemp-woven, vegan-friendly, protein-powdered binky—and it was a huge help.
- Harvey Dahl for falling on that ball after Roddy knocked it loose. Dahl's not a little man, so keeping up with the play as it developed was no small feat. Kudos, Harvey!
- There were stretches where they didn't look good, but ultimately the Falcons' front seven held Frank Gore to less than four yards a carry. Special thanks to Stephen Nicholas, who was an absolute tackling machine and proved to be Gore's nemesis 13 times yesterday.
- Curtis Lofton can kill a man by blinking. He can also intercept Alex Smith, sack him and still find the time to pile up eight more tackles while flying over the field. It's true what Sean Weatherspoon said. You really can't run from the police.
Erik Coleman was healthy for this game, but he only got a handful of snaps. Do you know why? William Moore does.
If the Falcons had coasted to a win in this one, Moore or Lofton would've been your MVP. Moore forced a Gore fumble the team unfortunately neglected to recover, picked Alex Smith and showed off his chops in coverage throughout. I think Coleman's days as a starter are officially over.
- I'm amazed Matt Bryant could kick that winning field goal, given the size of his balls. The man should get a cart to lug those things around.
After studying his career numbers and watching him struggle through pre-season, I'll admit I was rooting for the Falcons to find a more consistent kicker. Bryant responded by giving me a finger through the uprights and transforming into Super Saiyan Bryant, who charges his leg up for four quarters and then unleashes game winners. Mike Singletary's feeble icing of Bryant was completely ineffective.
So I'm sorry, Matt Bryant. Please continue to lay waste to our villages.
- Eric Weems continues to be one of the most consistent return men in the business. He doesn't break any huge returns, but he's consistently above average and gives the Falcons quality field position. He deserves his props for that.
- We're starting with Mike Mularkey, for reasons that should be obvious to everyone. It wasn't Mularkey's fault that Ryan threw the pick near the end of the game, so you have to give him credit for really putting together two great drives when the team needed them. Pretend I put this in highlights.
For large stretches in the rest of the game, Mularkey spun his greatest hits albums, either running it up the gut twice and going for a bomb, or running it to the right side three times, or dinking and dunking the Falcons to eight yards and a punt. You have to pin some of it on the personnel and the pressure the Niners were bringing today, but I don't want anyone to forget that Mularkey is calling the shots here. He still has plenty of room for improvement.
- Speaking of personnel not executing, Ryan wilted under pressure several times during this game. His pick to Clements came on a forced throw in traffic, and he was off the mark all day long. The fact that he still finished with a better than 50% completion percentage and 273 yards should tell you how good this kid really is.
- It's fair to wonder what Michael Turner's deal is. He was terrible on the ground today, generating just over three yards a carry, and he can thank one nice 27 yard burst for that. The long run shows what Turner is capable of, but he was maddeningly bad in a game where Jason Snelling quietly piled up 31 yards on only seven carries. He should be able to shake it off against the Browns next week.
- The offensive line didn't do anyone any favors today. While Ryan got happy feet and Turner hesitated, the line was getting pushed back and was having a hell of a time opening up holes. This remains a concern going forward.
Game MVP: You could give this one to Matt Bryant, but I choose to hand it to Roddy White. Great game overall and a game-saving effort put him over the top.
Game Theme Song: Something that sounds like victory. Pick your own!
One Thing To Take Away: We should never be ashamed to win.
Final Word: Score!