With apologies to zombie Charles Dickens, it was the best of games, it was the worst of games.
The first half was a tale of woe and incompetence. The Falcons' offensive was so inept that I was tackled in my living room by a Panthers linebacker, and I live in New Hampshire. Michael Turner couldn't get going and Matt Ryan was plagued by defenders all throughout, and the defense seemed incapable of stopping Cam Newton. When the clock hit zero in the second quarter, Falcons fans collectively gave up hope and I was ready to declare it the worst half of football I had seen in 2011.
There was little in the Falcons' performance up to this point that suggested they could or would win the game. The offense had simply been too inept, the defense too prone to big mistakes, the coaching staff unable or unwilling to make the kinds of adjustments that allow a team to engineer a 17 point comeback. The only point in their favor—the only one--is that this Falcons football team never seems to roll over.
Then the second half happened. For the first time all year, the coaching staff fired up the team and came out ready to make bold moves. Whether it was the long hit to Jacquizz Rodgers for a touchdown, the two bombs that found Julio Jones for touchdowns or the way the defense swarmed the edges against Newton, suddenly the Falcons looked like a damn good football team again.
Incredibly, they erased a 16 point deficit and held the Panthers scoreless in the second half. Think about how difficult it is to hold down Cam Newton and the rest of that dynamic offense for an entire half. Think about how tough it is to score 24 points in a half on an NFL team, especially for this offense. It was arguably the best half of the entire year.
I have real concerns about this team's ability to make a playoff run this season, and one excellent half can't save the coaching staff from legitimate criticism about their methods thus far in 2011. The Falcons never should have been down 23-7 at the end of the first half, after all.
Yet I can't help but feel my usual buoyant optimism right now. When the Falcons put it all together, there is no NFL team I would rather watch. If they can just sustain that level of play, I say to myself, this could be the year. It still might be.
Either way, it's worth celebrating that the Falcons are 8-5 and one step closer to the playoffs. With a Thursday night game at home against the Jaguars, they should be able to lock up their fourth straight winning season. Should. For better or for worse, nothing is certain with these Falcons.
After the jump, I'll break down some individual performances.
- Matt Ryan played a masterful game. Considering he was under pressure constantly—especially in the first half, when Sam Baker and Joe Hawley failed to even get hands on Andre Neblett and Antwan Applewhite—Ryan's final numbers are remarkable.
He finished with 320 yards and four touchdowns against no turnovers. Considering Julio Jones again found himself battling a case of the drops, those totals could have been even higher. If Ryan is facing a sub-standard secondary and can operate out of the no-huddle, he generally does quite well.
With the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Saints on tap, he should be able to keep the good times going.
- Jacquizz Rodgers was a standout. He only had one carry for four yards, but he was a factor in the passing game. Okay, factor's putting it mildly, considering he managed to reel in a 31 yard touchdown pass that Ryan placed gently into his hands.
The Falcons need to continue to use Rodgers as a weapon. If anything—sing it with me—they have to get him more involved in the offense.
- Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White paced the passing game. Both had seven catches for over 80 yards, and White made the secondary look foolish on his wide open touchdown on the game's
firstsecond Falcons drive. They remain integral.
- I really thought Jones was about to have another one of those games. His dropped pass was a continuation of his many, many struggles over the last couple of weeks, and Ryan could have been forgive if he had just given up throwing to Jones right then and there.
Thankfully, he didn't. Julio reeled in two highlight reel catches on Sunday, both of which went for touchdowns, and added a third to bring his total to 104 yards on just three grabs. He's the only rookie wide receiver with four 100 yard games.
There's a lot of growing left to do here, but if the Falcons can play to his strength and he can get the drops under control, the sky's the limit.
- Matt Bosher is one of the best punters in the NFL right now. He averaged 47.8 yards per punt yesterday, three times landing it inside the 20 yard line. After a lot of rookie mistakes early in the year, I have to believe he's going to a mainstay in Atlanta for a very long time to come.
- Ray Edwards had a dumb penalty, but he also managed to get at Cam Newton. Credit goes where credit is due.
- Sean Weatherspoon cannot and will not be denied a Pro Bowl berth.
All 'Spoon did Sunday was make plays. He accounted for nine tackles (eight solo) and sacked Newton, bringing his total for the year up to four. The injuries that held him back a year ago are ancient history, and even when the rest of the D is struggling, 'Spoon is a force to be reckoned with.
- I agree with many, many commenters. William Moore needs to get the starting job and keep it now that he's healthy.
James Sanders has been solid all season long for the Falcons, but he whiffed badly on several tackles Sunday. When Moore came in, he provided a little extra lumber and also picked Newton. Ballhawking safeties with crazy tackling skills don't grow on trees. They're lucky to have Sanders, but he should no longer be playing at Moore's expense.
- Mike Peterson is en fuego. That's the second straight week he picked off an errant pass, and he looks completely rejuvenated out there. He'll lose that starting job when Stephen Nicholas comes back, but Mo Pete deserves to be on the field as much as possible.
- The defense as a whole was dominant in the second half. Kudos to the players and BVG for not rolling over.
- Speaking of second half heroics, what got into Mike Mularkey? The long pass to Jacquizz Rodgers, the willingness to take strikes, the absence of runs up the middle...it was like a body snatcher ate him at halftime. Hey, I'll take it.
- The offensive line was woeful much of the day. Sam Baker in particular and Joe Hawley and Tyson Clabo to a lesser extent were turnstiles, and they nearly got Matt Ryan killed more than once. The safety caused me to actually shout in anguish, which alarmed both my wife and my cat.
They have to give Ryan more time. If they do, he can put up numbers comparable to this week on a regular basis.
- Michael Turner wasn't great today. He did what he had to do, grinding out the clock and a little yardage, but the combination of his groin injury and a poor line led to basically nothing. Ah well.
- The defense was astoundingly inept in the first half, with the exception of portions of a couple of drives. BVG needs to be more aggressive with mobile quarterbacks, methinks.
- Speaking of the first half...I haven't seen such an inept half of football since the Bears game. That was actually probably better.
- There are lot of little things that aren't actually all that small, but seem smaller because the Falcons won. Penalties, of which there were a handful. Dunta Robinson and Dominique Franks struggling in coverage at times. The pass rush still being inconsistent. The most godawful screen play you'll ever see run in your life. A sluggishness out of the gate that doesn't bode well for the Saints game. And so on.
I believe the Falcons need to make significant changes to the way they prepare for and ultimately execute in football games. I believe they need to prioritize creative play calling, work out an effective way to get the screen pass involved in their repertoire and get Julio Jones comfortable. On defense, they need to get healthy, but they also need to blitz more effectively and generate more pressure. That might be accomplished by sending the linebackers in more, or it might require a little trickery. If the current coaching staff isn't willing to mix things up a bit, then pieces of it probably have to go at the end of the season.
Just my two cents.
Game MVP: It's gotta be Ice. Ryan fought off pressure and generated 24 of the team's 31 points by connecting on sharp, accurate passes. You have to love that.
Game Theme Song: Just for one line, really.
One Thing To Take Away: The Falcons need to play pissed off football more often.
Final Word: Holycrapguys.