There was plenty of skepticism about the Falcons after they beat the Buccaneers, and there will be plenty of skepticism after they beat the Panthers on the road in what could be charitably described as an unimpressive win. Yet your Atlanta Falcons have improbably won two games in a row.
No one's going to deny that this one was ugly. The Falcons put together an anemic offensive performance, repeatedly failing to capitalize on their opportunities and letting the Panthers hang around until the very end, and they allowed the Panthers to climb back in after three pathetic quarters from Carolina's offense. It took a missed field goal and then a partially blocked field goal for the Falcons to pull it off, but somehow they did.
No one's going to tell you with a straight face that the Falcons made any kind of statement in this game, aside from perhaps with a thoroughly competent defensive effort. Yet being a fan is to be confronted by bizarre, often-depressing circumstances we have no control over, so I'll take the win over the statement. The wheels could come off this thing at any time, or the Falcons could make one hell of an improbable run. Given the uncertainty, I'm going to hope for the best.
With the win, the Falcons stand atop the NFC South, and with the division imploding left and right, they've got a small but real chance of staying there. That's nothing I expected to be able to say today, but I'm damn happy I can say it.
Let's get right to the individual breakdowns.
- Roddy White seems to have rid himself of his early season malaise. After a nice week against the Buccaneers, Roddy was reliable and caught another short touchdown pass from Matt Ryan. He's not exactly vintage #84, but he's done more than enough to help the passing game these last two weeks, and hopefully that continues.
- Julio Jones made some tough catches in traffic. If he had a couple of better throws headed his way from Matt Ryan, chances are we're talking about a truly big day from #11, but he was still quality yesterday. The Ryan-to-Julio connection has been a story of almosts in 2014, which we'll hope will change soon.
- The defense was geared up to play a terrible offensive line, and they made the weakness of the opponent count. Tyson Jackson nailed Cam Newton for a sack (nullified by a penalty, unfortunately), and the team proceeded to pile up sacks and turnovers from there. On a day where the offense was hardly clicking, that made all the difference.
While the Falcons won't have it this easy going forward, that's two consecutive weeks of confidence-building performances for a defense that desperately needed them. With any luck, they'll figure a few more things out before they play the Browns next weekend.
- You can't tell me anything about Kemal Ishmael. Questions about coverage have dogged him all year, but he snatched an interception on the first drive and blanketed Greg Olsen on a critical third down pass in the end zone on the Panthers' second drive. I don't claim to know Ishmael's ceiling or his future with the team—and he was still involved in some coverage issues in the second half—but he looks like a quality contributor going forward.
- Desmond Trufant has been a stellar asset in coverage all season long, but he certainly dropped his share of potential interceptions along the way. He finally got one against Cam Newton and almost had another earlier in the game, and I really think he'll start to come down with more as the season grinds on. He's fantastic.
- Matt Bryant is spoiling us with his reliability. Your average kicker is nowhere near this good, and Bryant continued to hit 40-plus yarders like it ain't no thing.
- Who knows if Graham Gano would have been able to hit that last second, game-winning field goal. What I do know is that Ra'Shede Hageman got a hand on it, ensuring Gano couldn't pull off the miracle. That's the second blocked or partially blocked field goal from the big man thus far in 2014, and if nothing else, he's making an outsized mark on special teams.
- The Falcons just couldn't get off to a fast start in this one, going three and out on their first two offensive possessions. That slow start would, unfortunately, set the tone for the rest of the game. The Falcons pissed away two interceptions and got only three points out of them, thanks to some poorly executed and poorly conceived plays on the subsequent drives. It's a good thing the defense was so good and the Panthers offense so terrible, because otherwise the mediocre offensive effort might have been quite costly.
- The team's overreliance on the screen pass is starting to become a pain point. The Falcons simply aren't connecting on those passes often enough, and when they do, they aren't developing in a meaningful way. I understand that Dirk Koetter is trying to protect Ryan and get the receivers some blocking so they can get into space, but it's fairly clear that the specific screens he's calling and the frequency with which he's calling them are actively harmful to the offense.
- The pass protection was less impressive this week against the Panthers. Ryan wasn't sacked frequently, but he was facing plenty of hands in his face and pressure all around him, which caused him to throw a few shaky balls along the way. The Falcons need to figure out something that doesn't involve more screen passes.
- Speaking of Ryan, he had about a yard to scramble for a first down on the team's second drive and elected to effectively throw the ball away. Questions about his scrambling ability and willingness are generally misplaced, but keeping that early drive alive seemed feasible and might have been a factor later on.
- The Panthers really had no business hanging around in this game. If you want a reason to be dour, it's that the Falcons have failed to put away bad teams in back-to-back weeks, stalling out on offense at inopportune times. We'll have to see how they fare against a better Cleveland Browns team, but I'm at least a little optimistic they'll rally.
Game MVP: Matt Bryant. His leg accounted for 12 of the Falcons' points, and the Falcons most assuredly would not have won without his reliable leg.
Theme Song: I couldn't find a song that conveyed the message of "be happy, because this may not last." Nominate some good ones in the comments.
One Takeaway: As inept as the Panthers are, the Falcons do appear to be improving on defense. The offense is another story.
Final Word: Divisionleadsomehow.
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