The Atlanta Falcons were rolling right along this season, bringing with them feelings of happiness, warm and fuzzy puppies and rainbows featuring at least 25 colors. That all changed on Sunday.
The Falcons played a pretty mediocre game of football. They couldn't stop Cam Newton or force him to turn the ball over, they couldn't keep Matt Ryan upright and they couldn't come up with the big play when they needed to. Ron Rivera talked about knowing the Falcons' weaknesses coming into the game, and while we were inclined to dismiss him, give the man credit. He saw the Falcons' failings, and he exploited them throughout the game.
If this sounds like an unduly harsh way to start a recap for a game that ended in a win...well, maybe it is. But I love this team too much to coddle them, and no one watching this game would have been or should have been convinced they were going to win it until the clock hit zero. They simply did not play a terrific football game.
That said, they won. They're 4-0. As Matt Miller of Bleacher Report said to me immediately following the game, great football teams overcome their worst performances. The Falcons hung on through a fine Cam Newton game and still walked away victorious, thanks to a rub-your-eyes-unreal last drive from Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Matt Bryant. Just because it wasn't pretty doesn't mean it wasn't one hell of a win, and you can't possibly overstate how much of a lead the team has now built up in the division.
If the Falcons can turn around the line play and tweak a few plays here and there, they still have enough talent to run away with the NFC South. It's just imperative that they don't allow teams to hang around by getting a better pass rush and protecting Ryan better. Imperative.
Let's go over some individual performances.
- Matt Ryan...for most of the game. We'll cover his ugly pick in the ugly section, but he continued to reach new heights despite constant pressure from a tenacious Panthers front seven. For the day, he finished with three touchdowns and well over 300 yards, and showed the same kind of precision and grace under pressure as he has over the first three weeks. I think that's a pretty good sign.
I also think this is the season that Ryan takes such an enormous leap forward that even the pundits cannot deny him his plaudits.
- Michael Turner finally put on the kind of clinic we all knew he could. Against an inferior Panthers run defense, the Burner was downright abusive, putting up over 100 yards on less than 20 carries and regularly trucking over hapless teal cats on his way there. Add in three catches for 68 yards and a touchdown and it's not hard to figure out why Turner was invaluable today.
- Roddy White is still simply the most reliable option on the field for the Falcons, and at times he can make you forget Julio Jones is even on the field. That was the case today, when Roddy caught 8 balls for 169 yards and 2 touchdowns, showing up as a reliable option again and again and again when the Falcons needed yardage. He was fantastic.
- Tony Gonzalez is the same week-in and week-out now. He averages about a first down a catch, comes up with them when needed and looks suave doing it. It's almost rote, but in a good way.
- The left side of the line was excellent today. Sam Baker and Justin Blalock did their part, springing Michael Turner and keeping their pass rushers off Matt Ryan's back. More on the rest of the line later.
- John Abraham is one of the toughest dudes in the game today. Misdemeanor arrest? Whatever. He's nailing Cam Newton for a sack on the last place of the game. You could dismember Abraham in Week 1 and he'd still pull off at least six sacks.
- Vance Walker was chosen in the seventh round. Vance Walker also has two sacks this season, including one this week that he paired with a forced fumble and a snappy joke.
Contrary to popular belief, Vance will not make her dance. That is all— Vance Walker
- Sean Weatherspoon got a sack. Sean Weatherspoon? Sean Weatherspoon.
- Matt Bosher averaged 47 yards a punt on five punts. For the sake of perspective, the last human being to do that was Marcus Augustus, punter for the Roman Centurions in 150 A.D.
- Save the last of the praise for Matt Bryant. It might have something to do with all the very real adversity he's gone through in his life, but he walked out onto that field and drilled a 40 yarder with all the pressure in the world on his back. He's the best.
- This wasn't the finest game for the coaching staff, but give them credit: When it was absolutely a back to the wall, do or die situation, Dirk Koetter/Smitty/Ryan called a beautiful final drive. Bonus points to Mike Nolan for the last play of the game.
- Matt Ryan's interception was an awful, telegraphed throw of the type that he rarely makes. I'll cut him a break considering our next point, but the throw to Julio Jones that almost led to an easy win went off-course, too.
- The offensive line was horrendous today. The right side played at a nightmarishly poor level, leading to Ryan being sacked an astounding seven times. I'm not entirely absolving Baker and Blalock of the blame here, but it's pretty clear that teams know they need to attack the right side if they want to get after Ryan. This is the #1 priority for the Falcons this week, lest the Redskins get after Ryan again in Week 5. It's a major concern.
- Julio Jones disappeared for most of the afternoon. He's still a game-changer in the sense that he soaks up coverage, but he only had one catch all afternoon. I'm hoping he'll start to dominate soon.
- The defense really struggled to contain the Panthers. Cam Newton is a dynamic, strong-armed quarterback, but the Falcons appeared to have absolutely no answer for him. Especially when he or anyone else was on the ground, where the Panthers wrecked Atlanta all day long. Considering Robert Griffin is next on the slate, it's a good time for a fix.
- Need. Moar. Pass. Rush.
- Dominique Franks should probably not be on punt returns. He hasn't impressed me yet, and he keeps making poor decisions back there. Eventually, it's going to cost the team a lot.
- One final note: The adjustments that put the Falcons up big in the second half against the Chiefs and helped them thump the Chargers just weren't there against the Panthers. I'd say they adjusted, but the adjustments were generally spectacularly unsuccessful. The Falcons will have to do a better job of switching things up, or teams are going to develop a blueprint.
Game MVP: Michael Turner and Matt Ryan have legitimate cases here, but I'm giving it to Roddy White. He had a crazy game and basically dragged the Falcons to victory.
Game Theme Song: This one's for you, Matt Ryan.
One Thing To Take Away: The Falcons held on to win against a tough football team after playing their worst game of the season. That's encouraging.
Final Word: Wow.