The Atlanta Falcons haven't made their undefeated season easy.
They've won five of their eight games by a touchdown or less. They came into a Sunday Night Football game against a struggling but talented Dallas Cowboys team with home field advantage and all the reason in the world to play hard. They walked away with a 19-13 victory that felt like anything but the siren song of an elite team reaching its potential.
Yet for the first time this season, I'm not going to let that get to me. There are problems and mistakes to correct, and I'm not going to turn a blind eye to them at all. Only a fool gets too comfortable with winning, even if they are 8-0. Instead, I'm going to focus on the fact that the Falcons won an extremely gutsy football team against a desperate squad that needed a victory so badly you could see it in their bearing. Your old Falcons might have folded in those same circumstances.
Instead, they got it done. Matt Bryant fought back from those missed field goals. Matt Ryan shook himself off after those sacks and played well. Michael Turner fought through a tough first half. Roddy White absorbed a couple of penalties and still came up with a big catch. Jacquizz Rodgers put an up and down season behind him and ruined Orlando Scandrick forever. And so on. This wasn't a cupcake team the Falcons should have beaten handily, but one of the better teams in the NFC, one that usually loses because of terrible turnovers and the like. They made no crippling mistakes (besides a couple of penalties) and the Falcons still won.
At this point, saying the Falcons are anything but an elite team is foolish. At 4-0 you could point to a little luck. At 6-0 you could say they were winning too many close games. At 8-0, the best you can say is that they could still be playing better. If the Falcons ever string together four quarters of elite football, they will torch any other team in the NFL. Every one of us is aware of it, but it's frightening to think that. We're too used to disappointment.
Get used to it. Success is phantasmic smoke drifting over the minute hand of a clock, when you look at the overall history of the NFL. But it's here now, and it is to be savored.
Let's hit the individual performances.
- Matt Ryan had some troubles that we'll discuss in The Ugly section, but he still had an excellent game overall. He threw for 342 yards, completed 24 of his 34 passes and avoided any turnovers despite being sacked three times and knocked over close to ten times in total. It's a game that will make fantasy owners mad, but in real life it was a gutsy performance against a defense that did its level best to stop him.
- Michael Turner was lethargic for most of the first half, but he came up big as the game went on. His 43 yard run (sprung by a nice block from Julio Jones) was huge, and he ran better than he has most of the season throughout the second half. He finished with 20 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown in what was arguably his finest game of the year.
- Jacquizz Rodgers isn't running very well in 2012, but he sure is catching well. His fourth quarter catch and ankle-breaking juke basically sealed the game for the Falcons, and it showed a player who is capable of diagnosing plays on the fly. I still see a bright future for him in Atlanta.
- Roddy White. What can you say about this guy? On a night where he set the franchise record for receptions, he hauled in seven passes for 118 yards and prevented an interception on an absolute mugging on a Dallas defender that may have prevented an interception. You hate to give a guy credit for a penalty uncalled, but White was brilliant all game without it.
- Julio Jones is a game-breaking receiver. On just five receptions, he piled up a borderline insane 129 yards and chipped in a first down on an eight yard run. In short, he's a monster masquerading as a man.
- Yes, Matt Bryant missed two field goals. Yes, that ultimately hurt the Falcons. The fact that he still managed to nail four field goals and not fall apart under the pressure tells you exactly what kind of player he is.
- Matt Bosher's last punt helped put the nail in the coffin. A booming kick that ensured a touchback? Yes please, behemoth leg.
- Jonathan Babineaux went right into beast mode for this one. Seven total tackles and an embarrassingly easy sack of a trippin' Tony Romo makes for a very nice day, and he was easily the most disruptive defensive lineman out there on Sunday.
- Stephen Nicholas is killer against the run. He was in the backfield making stops multiple times, and it doesn't hurt that he high-fived a referee. Really.
- It's not Thomas DeCoud's fault that Dunta Robinson got a penalty when he picked Tony Romo. He played an excellent game all the way around.
- Akeem Dent played his best game of the season, getting seven tackles in total and showing well on a day when very few Falcon defenders tackled well.
- Give it up to the coaching staff. When it came right down to it in the second half, Dirk Koetter and the offense were able to move the ball down the field. Mike Nolan's defense was excellent despite a lack of pressure all game long, with the exception of one blip drive.
- Matt Ryan may not have had any scores this game, but he simply couldn't find a couple of wide open receivers today. You'd like to believe that he can move through his progressions well enough to grab an open guy—especially if it's Tony Gonzalez—but there was another factor. I'll give you three guesses.
- The offensive line and the blocking in general were subpar today. The Cowboys boast a pretty terrific pass rush, but there were missed blocks, blown assignments and offensive linemen just getting overpowered today. Ryan took more than ten hits and three sacks, and that quite literally stalled out a couple of drives. It's not unreasonable to think that the Falcons could have put 3-14 more points on the board if the blocking hadn't failed so spectacularly throughout the game.
- If it wasn't for Rodgers, the Falcons' running backs would be the worst pass-catching group in the league. Lousaka Polite and Michael Turner each had a killer drop early in the game, when the Falcons were trying to set the tempo.
- The defense produced weak pressure throughout the game. There were times when they got into the backfield and forced Tony Romo to make a throw under pressure, but they were few and far between. Mostly we saw the Falcons getting pushed to the side or cutting into the pocket and immediately getting blocked again while Romo stepped up and made a throw. That probably won't cut it against Drew Brees and the Saints' otherworldly offense.
- If you hear pundits bash the Falcons for this effort....well, it's not entirely off-base. As good as the Cowboys are and as hard as they were playing, the Falcons tacked a trio of dumb penalties on, didn't make a turnover, sacked Romo only once and failed to score points on drives where they were deep into Cowboys territory. I praised Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan above, but the combination of some iffy play-calling and poor execution meant the Falcons grabbed a 19-13 win where a 23-6 one easily could have happened. It's something to think about going forward.
- The officials were just plain bad tonight. They missed at least three obvious calls against the Cowboys and at least two against the Falcons. You'd like to see a more alert crew.
Game MVP: Julio Jones. He didn't just convert, he chewed up a ton of yardage and put the Falcons in a position to score all day long. One of the first of many for #11, I expect.
Game Theme Song: It felt like this, anyways.
One Thing To Take Away: 8-0. That's the single most important thing.
Next Week: The Falcons take to the road to play the New Orleans Saints, who bring both one of the league's best offenses and one of the league's worst defenses to bear. Check out Canal Street Chronicles for more.
Final Word: Eightandoh.