Let's just get this out of the way: Barring a miraculous 8 game winning streak, you can effectively write-off the Falcons 2013 season. Let me also be clear that I am not advocating for "throwing" the rest of the season, I'm just acknowledging that this team is not going to suddenly start winning games with the issues they have.
So, what do you do when you suffer a blow-out loss against a division opponent and drop to 2-6? You look towards the future.
There are other much better writers on this site that will give you a proper recap of the game. As for me, I want to focus on what I saw in this game that I believe are potential positive take aways for next season. It's easy to get overly negative about this team and the performances they've collectively turned in this year. But I'm beginning to see things that make me believe this negative season will ultimately benefit our franchise in the long run.
The much-maligned offensive line turned in one of their best performances of the season - and that was going against a very formidable front 7. The run blocking was dramatically improved and the pass blocking was very good throughout most of the game. The only sack came late in the fourth quarter when the Falcons were in pass-only situations. Sam Baker returned to his LT spot and had a good game. Lamar Holmes slid over to RT and appeared to play much better. And the interior line held up very well, with Konz having a nice bounce back game after some terrible performances recently. If the line can continue to build on this performance, we may not have to draft 5 new OL players in 2014. In particular, the development of Konz and Holmes - our two youngest starters - is critical. And there are signs they are improving.
Frustratingly, our receiver depth didn't come through today. Our offensive dependence on Roddy White and Julio Jones is clear, though Harry Douglas has clearly played well in their absence. Having all three of these guys back next year will be hugely important.
Finally, while our run game is not going to be our focus anymore, it was nice to see Steven Jackson running with some power again. He hit the holes hard and showed us what we had hoped to see all season. Likewise, Jaquizz continues to show that he can be counted on for all three downs (he's an excellent pass blocking back) and his elusiveness is still amazing to watch. If we can get that productivity consistently next year, this offense will finally realize it's fullest potential.
Lest anyone forget, we are currently starting 3 rookies on our defense, and in many of our formations, we have upwards of five rookies on the field at once. It's unreasonable to think that you are going to field a good D when starting that many young players, and that has certainly held up this year. But the only way to develop young players is to give them playing time - something they're getting in bulk this year. And they played well for most of the game.
In particular, our young corners - Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford - are both turning into special players. Both players left the game with interceptions and played all around good games. It is rare that rookie cornerbacks play well, much less two of them - but it's exactly what we're getting right now. This duo could be very dangerous next year and into the future.
At linebacker, it's clear we're missing Weatherspoon, but both Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow are quietly making cases for roster spots in 2014. Worrilow had a monster game against Carolina, tackling everything in sight. And while Bartu has slowed in recent weeks, he's still shown to be a capable player. At the very least, the Falcons can easily move on from Nicholas next year and will have some quality depth with real starting experience.
The Carolina game also showed that the young guys may be capable of producing a pass rush. Massaqoui had a strong game, appearing in the Panthers backfield a few times. Likewise, Goodman again showed some impressive strength. It's important to remember that in the NFL, very few players come out of the draft as dominant pass rushers. Those that are, are normally drafted in the first few picks of the first round - making them very hard to get. However, given time and experience, you can find quality players if you're willing to let them develop. Case in point: look at Michael Johnson's first few years in Cincinnati. The Falcons are giving quality snaps to guys like Massaqoui, Goodman and Maponga - and it could very well pay off in the long run.
While this season has been very painful to watch, there are some positives that could bode well for the future of this team. Every NFL team has to work to get younger, and in doing so, there are bound to be growing pains. But if you can suffer through it, the payoff will be a franchise that will continually be in the playoff conversation. And as frustrating as it is to watch, there's reason to believe the Falcons are building a roster that can compete for the long-haul - starting in 2014.