ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons talks with his team during warm ups prior to their game against the Denver Broncos at the Georgia Dome on September 17, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
That was one hell of a game.
We couldn't reasonably expect the Falcons to crush a very good Broncos team for four quarters, and sure enough, they didn't do it. The Broncos adjusted, the Falcons wore down and things got dicey in the fourth quarter. What we saw from this Falcons team that felt different, last night, was an absolute determination to win in the face of Peyton Manning playing would-be assassin.
Let's be clear: The Falcons have plenty to learn here. They need to learn to finish on sacks, they need to learn to keep up the defensive intensity all game and they need to call a better game that somehow gets the ground game rolling. It wasn't a perfect effort, and while I didn't expect one, they left points on the field. No question.
But they also won. They did a brilliant job of shutting down Manning early and forcing mistakes, and considering the opposition, the defense was nothing short of terrific. Matt Ryan played a tough game and the offense did enough to win. There will be games where everything doesn't go right, but it's how the Falcons play with their backs against the wall that will determine the course of this season. Twice now, they've shown me they're up to the challenge even when they're far from perfect. I mean, they picked Manning three times.
Moving forward, if the Falcons continue to learn from their mistakes and improve upon their strengths, there are few teams in the NFL this season who can match them. That's not really an opinion. It's a statement of fact.
After the jump, the full breakdown.
- Matt Ryan was under pressure throughout the night and still managed to move the offense. Certainly not his finest offensive performance, but a gutsy one given the constant confusion and the Broncos' excellent pass rush. He also avoided turnovers, chucked two touchdowns and completed nearly 70% of his passes, though he admittedly got a little lucky on a couple of attempts. He added 22 yards on four rushes. He also put up with more than a little verbal abuse.
- Roddy White is as sure-handed as he's ever been. On a night where drops plagued the receiving corps, White was still gold. He finished with eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown, proving that he's still one of the NFL's elite receivers. Like we didn't know.
- Tony Gonzalez had some hiccups along the way, but he's a matchup problem for most teams over the middle. He came up with seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown. Screw the hiccups, he's awesome.
- The offensive line did an incredible job of protecting Ryan against a very tough pass rush. They kept him from being sacked until the fourth quarter, which is incredible against a team with a potent group of pass rushers. Terrific work.
- The Falcons showed incredible variability on defense. Their fronts were shimmering like desert air all game long, which helped them confuse Peyton Manning and come up with three turnovers. They also applied nice pressure throughout—though they didn't close much—and forced Manning to make a few bad decisions.
- Vance Walker showed great push up the middle and came up with a nice sack on Manning. That boy has talent.
- The USS Babineaux came up with his second sack of the season. Dude is rock solid.
- William Moore is the clear MVP on defense in a game full of great players and great plays. He picked Manning to star the game, was in on a dozen plays and came up with a huge third down sack late in the fourth quarter to stop the Broncos cold. I could not have been more impressed with C4 last night. To use a bad pun, he's absolutely blown up these first two games.
- Thomas DeCoud diagnosed a slightly errant Manning pass perfectly and came down with it. He and Moore are dominating back there.
- Wondered why Robert McClain was on the roster? That pick should have erased any question. He may not ever be more than a reserve, but he showed he can get in the game and play when called upon.
- Give Mike Nolan kudos for planning exceptionally well. The Falcons certainly wore down a little late and the Broncos caught on, but he did a great job of masking his blitzes and leading a disruptive defensive attack. It's really coming together.
- Frankly, a total team effort. They all deserve credit.
- This has to start with the officiating. Point blank, it stunk. It stunk for the Falcons at times, it stunk for the Broncos quite a bit and it stunk for football fans across the globe. It stunk.
I don't blame the replacement refs for that. I blame the NFL, an organization with a truly dizzying amount of money, for not ponying up approximately 50 percent of 1 percent in order to give the refs a raise. If you're an NFL referee, you could not be happier with the way these first two weeks have played out, because these refs are simply in over their heads. They can't keep control of the game, they throw flags late and they get calls wrong. Again, and again, and again.
If they were screwing the Falcons, I'd be livid, and they did. But they got the Broncos just as badly, if not worse, and it's unacceptable because it tarnishes football games, draws them out and leads to powder keg situations where dozens of 250+ men could start throwing punches.
The NFL needs to say enough is enough, work with the refs' union and get a deal done. I don't care how you feel about unions or even the regular refs. It's an improvement, and it's one I for one would surely like to have right now.
That said, am I livid that they gave the Broncos five extra yards on that penalty near the end of the first half? Yes. Yes I am.
- The Michael Turner train is still sitting in the trainyard, whistling mightily and occasionally rolling forward a few feet. Last night he actually averaged under three yards a carry, and at times he could not have looked more like a giant cement wedge in front of this offense. Yes, I'm mixing metaphors, but you all saw it as well. The Falcons are going to have to figure out how to get him involved effectively or turn the ball over to Jacquizz Rodgers, because he's been absolutely abysmal to this point.
- Speaking of Turner, the play-calling was a little whack all game long. Ryan did well moving the ball for the most part, but the Falcons called Turner's number 11 times total, and often in obvious run situations. I didn't feel like the passing game was aggressive enough early on, either, and Julio Jones simply couldn't get open until the end. I don't think it was Koetter's finest game, and hopefully it's his worst one of the season.
- Dropped passes all night long. Even Tony Gonzalez, who otherwise had a great game, suffered from a couple of drops. I'd say, in all seriousness, that five of Ryan's first 24 passes were dropped...and he only had seven incompletions total through those attempts. That's not good.
- Gotta hold a back like Willis McGahee in check, a little bit more. Not the greatest game for the run defense.
- Dunta Robinson still alternates good plays with bad ones. He looked overmatched on Demaryius Thomas during his first half touchdown, which came shortly after he made a beautiful deflection against...Demaryius Thomas. I dunno. You figure him out.
- The Falcons have to be careful about secondary injuries. Dominique Franks just doesn't look good back there at all, albeit in limited action. The depth is a huge question, and Owens was out for the game already.
- The Falcons still had a little trouble closing the deal. The pressure was good all night, but especially after the Broncos lost Orlando Franklin for a while, they should have been able to pull of a few more sacks. Really more of a nitpick, honestly, but a largeish one.
- Not the best night for Matt Bosher, who averaged just a tick over 40 yards a punt. The Falcons were able to get it done on defense, but it'd be nice to do a little bit better there and set the defense up with better field position.
- Did I mention the officiating?
Game MVP: William Moore. Seven total tackles, an interception and a sack, and he really set the tone for the defense all day long.
Game Theme Song: I think this about sums up the Falcons last night.
One Thing To Take Away: Even when this team isn't at its best, they can win football games thanks to Mike Nolan's miraculous morphing defense.
Next Week: The San Diego Chargers, who stand 2-0 and will be hosting the Falcons at home. Another chance to make a dent in the AFC West, but a tough game ahead. Check out Bolts from the Blue for more.
Final Word: Unbelievable.