The Atlanta Falcons have not played like an undefeated team for the last three weeks...and it hasn't mattered. Not really, anyways.
This game was a tale of two halves, but unfortunately neither half was all that spectacular. The Falcons turned in easily their worst full-game performance of the year, one punctuated by missed tackles, turnovers, poor line play and consistent fan heartburn. Against a better team, this one might have transformed into a blowout. At times, it was uglier than a buck-toothed Medusa in parachute pants.
Instead, it was a win. The Falcons have shown a crazy amount of resilience even when they don't play particularly well, as well as a flair for the dramatic that makes a bipolar Shakespearean actor jealous. Today, they got the lead on Asante Samuel's glorious pick and touchdown return, let the Raiders charge down the field and managed to get Matt Bryant into position for a game-winning field goal with six seconds left on the clock. You can't script this stuff.
Ultimately, the win is the thing that matters most. The Falcons are still undefeated, have an enormous lead in the NFC and a bye week to rest up. The season could not have gone much better up to this point.
If the Falcons want to make the Super Bowl this season, if they want to run to an easy NFC South title and be confirmed as one of America's great football teams, then they need to play much better football. The last three weeks have been a study in diminishing returns, and it's time to figure out why defenses have been able to force turnovers and mistakes and offenses have been able to probe the weak points in the Falcons' defense. But with a bye week in store and a 6-0 record, they've got time to figure out.
Let's run down some quality individual performances, and some not-so-quality individual performances.
- Roddy White remains great at football. Today he reeled in 6 catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. You can't hate on the guy.
Julio Jones also turned in a solid game, reeling in a couple of spectacular highlight reel catches and showing he can beat coverage. It'd be nice to see him and Ryan on the same page all the time, but it's coming along.
- Thritto Harry Douglas, who had 5 catches for 37 yards and was open often yesterday. Encouraging for a guy who has had spotty production thus far in 2012.
- Fourtto? I'm really off in the weeds here. Ahem. Tony Gonzalez caught four passes for 42 yards, showing sure-handed veteran gumption and hey you probably stopped reading.
- John Abraham had three sacks and forced a critical third quarter fumble that Ray Edwards returned 28 yards to practically the goal line. Abe is the team's sack leader with six and is slowly but surely punching his Hall of Fame ticket. He's also a ravenous man-monster who quarterbacks see when they close their weeping eyes.
- Ray Edwards had one hell of a play, scooping up a fumble caused by John Abraham's six-foot long talons sinking into Carson Palmer's flesh and returning it to the two-yard line.
- Jonathan Babineaux didn't fill up the stat sheet, but he was a disruptive presence throughout and was a holy terror against the run. He's been an extremely underrated, nasty
- Asante Samuel has played well in coverage all year, but he hadn't managed a signature play. Enter his ridiculous 79 yard interception return for a touchdown, where he even had time to slow down and pose before juking a guy out of his shorts. It was, without question, the single most important play of the game. He delivered.
- Matt Bosher actually punted better than Shane Lechler. Let that sink in.
- Or was it the most important play of the game? Perhaps that play was the Raiders' ill-advised decision to "ice" Matt Bryant on a kick he actually missed. More likely it was the 55 yard field goal that followed. Bryant actually missed one earlier in the game, but I find it hard to hold against him when he ended the game like that. He's still money.
- I wouldn't file this under "awesome," per se, but the Falcons did exactly the right thing in trying to shut down Darren McFadden (largely successful, only 70 yards on 27 carries) and let Carson Palmer try to beat them. It's just that he nearly did beat them. Can't blame the underpinnings of the strategy, though.
- If Matt Ryan's three incomplete passes from the first half—seriously, he was 12/15—had fallen incomplete instead of into the hands of Raiders defenders, we'd all be feeling fine today. Unfortunately, all three went for interceptions, and suddenly we have something to dwell on.
Not all three were Ryan's fault. His first one was as he was being hit, practically, and while it was bad it was defensible. The second happened when Tony Gonzalez totally lost track of the ball in the air, coming forward as it fell into the hands of an eager Raiders defender, even though the pass was definitely off. But it was nonetheless an off day for Ryan, who sailed more than one pass and had to fight through pressure.
- Michael Turner was bottled up early and quickly became a non-factor when the Falcons had to pass to catch up. That was exacerbated by the line.
- Ah, the line. This didn't rank among their worst games of the season, but it was still not pretty. They allowed one sack, a fair amount of pressure on Ryan and utterly failed in short-yardage blocking situations. The Ray Edwards fumble return should have been an easy score that gave the Falcons the lead and a chance to walk away with a much easier win. Instead, the line ensured they got no push.
- Let this be a clear lesson: When you lose Stephen Nicholas for most of the game and trot Akeem Dent out for a significant number of snaps, your effectiveness against the pass wanes. This isn't to excuse the secondary, who were at times totally abused by Caron Freakin' Palmer, but the linebackers make a difference.
Game MVP: Tough call, but I'm going with Abraham. He was extremely disruptive and killed at least two drives more or less single-handedly. Honorable mention to Asante Samuel for his insane play.
Game Theme Song: In honor of this game.
One Thing To Take Away: The Falcons continue to win at something less than their best, but that remains a concern.
Next Week: The dreaded bye week. You can visit their website here.
Final Word: Sixoh.