Slowly buy surely, the Falcons are starting to look like a Super Bowl-caliber team.
In many respects, the Falcons' victory on Sunday was akin to the majority of their wins this season: The game was far too close for comfort, they had to fight from behind and they made several crucial mistakes that could have cost them the game.
Winning in this fashion time and time again has led many to believe Atlanta isn't as strong as its record may indicate, and prior to this week, these critics had a solid point. But the Buccaneers are not of the same caste as the Panthers, Cowboys, Raiders or Cardinals; conversely, Tampa Bay is a damn good football team.
Given that the Bucs have the best run defense in the NFL, score more points than almost everyone else in the league and had won five straight heading into Week 12, beating them should be considered an achievement—regardless of how it was done.
Were the Falcons perfect on Sunday? Far from it. Do they have a long way to go before they're ready to compete for a Super Bowl? Absolutely, but they're moving in the right direction.
The biggest concern for Atlanta heading into Week 12 was having to face Doug Martin and Tampa's vaunted ground attack. The belief was that if Martin—who had exactly 1,000 yards in the first 10 games of the season—was able to run wild, the Falcons would have an extremely difficult time coming out on top.
But contrary to what just about everyone expected, Atlanta was able to contain Martin for most of the game—an effort that made the difference between winning and losing.
The recent Boise State graduate was held to just 50 rushing yards—the second lowest total of his professional career. Yes, the rookie did find the end zone twice, but his inability to move the ball effectively between the 20's was a huge factor in the outcome and a testament to the improvements of Mike Nolan's defense.
"They loaded the box and did a lot kind of outside their tendencies,'' Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman said. "All in all, when you can contain a guy like Doug, as explosive as Doug, that's saying a lot.''
A lot of credit in stopping Martin goes to linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who led the team with seven tackles (six of which were solo). Nicholas, a former fifth round pick, is in the midst of the best season of his career and has proven to be one of Atlanta's most valuable assets on the field.
Sean Weatherspoon also had himself a strong game in his return from a lower ankle injury, making six tackles and one for a loss. Universally considered the most talented member of the Falcons' defense, Weatherspoon's presence significantly helped Nicholas and others in containing Josh Freeman, Martin and others.
"I felt great and my ankle felt great," said the Missouri alumnus. "I was kind of emotional at the beginning of the game, but once I got back out there with my guys it just felt like being out there at the beginning of the season."
With Weatherspoon back in the equation, the Falcons D will have the chance to take the next step as a unit and improve upon their strong numbers thus far in 2012. A stark contrast from 2011, Atlanta has been among the best defenses in the NFL in points allowed, surrendering just 19.6 points against per game.
"Sean is one of our best football players," Coach Smith said. "We've missed him the last three weeks. Having him back in there was a big boost for us not only in the way we play the run but in the volume that we can have. When we have him in there, he's very efficient at what we want to do and getting us into the right fronts based on some formations."
Listed as questionable all week, it was unclear until Sunday morning whether or not Julio Jones would suit up against Tampa Bay. Based on the way he ran on an 80-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, I'd say that injured ankle of his is feeling just fine. Jones finished the day with one score and a career-high 147 yards.
While the Falcons have quite a few receiving threats, Jones' abbreviated absences over the past few weeks have been palpable. Truth is, Atlanta's offense operates at a completely different level when he's on the field. Without him, it's hard to see this team scoring enough points to earn the Lombardi Trophy.
The Falcons have struggled mightily this season running the football, and Tampa's staunch rush defense figured to give Atlanta fits. However, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers were able to move the ball on the ground somewhat effectively on Sunday.
“We felt like we needed to try it,” said Coach Smith of the running game. “We felt like we could do it, too. We challenged our guys. We wanted to come down here — this was the No. 1 rushing team in all of the NFL — and we wanted to see if we could do it.”
While Turner rushed for just 17 yards on 13 carries (a 1.3 average) he did find the end zone for the second straight week. Rodgers, who moved around like a human pinball on the field, got 49 yards on 10 carries, scoring a touchdown as well. If Smith and Dirk Koetter can swap these two backs in and out of action and keep opponents out of sync, the Falcons could start to do some damage on the ground and make their offense multi-dimensional once again.
By improving their record to 10-1 on Sunday (and doing so against the Bucs), the Falcons inched closer to earning the NFC South crown. If they can win two of their final three games, they'll earn a division championship for the second time in the last three seasons.