That was a 2014 Panthers-level win.
The Panthers won the division at 7-8-1 in 2014, but make no mistake, that Panthers team discovered its mojo last fall and rode it a full calendar year. The Falcons - with little to play for, mind you - played with an anger I haven't seen in a long, long time. They were disrespected and embarrassed two weeks ago and they wanted to let the Panthers know they weren't going to lie down. I honestly don't think Mike Smith's Falcons would have responded in such a way. I can tell you with almost 100% certainty they would have wilted after giving up that opening TD drive, but this team is different than last year's and it's starting to show. Vic Beasley and Ra'Shede Hageman both had strong games, and while the Falcons are no longer in the playoff hunt, a win next week would send a powerful message to the rest of the division: the Falcons are back.
Personnel changes by Dan Quinn work wonders
It would be foolish to fully credit the Falcons win based on cutting the playing time of certain players, but that being said, Paul Worrilow only playing 19 snaps in Atlanta's best defensive performance isn't a coincidence. Brooks Reed receiving four snaps is another indication that Dan Quinn is willing to make adjustments on a week-to-week basis. The old regime rarely made adjustments in regards to starting positions. They would waste Jonathan Babineaux on the edge or repeatedly play Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai together on the inside, despite the combination clearly not improving a creaky run defense. Quinn decided to play Nate Stupar more often, as the versatile linebacker offers more athleticism and better awareness. Look no further than his unbelievable open-field tackle on a screen pass to Fozzy Whittaker that saved a big gain. While the defense lacks talent in several areas, credit to Quinn for making adjustments and not sticking with the same limited players. Letting Desmond Trufant shadow the opposing team's best wide receiver paid off as well. It was an overall defensive masterpiece that will be remembered for years to come.
Falcons have a great foundation for the near future
Julio Jones rightfully stole the show on Sunday, but it shouldn't go overlooked that young players on this team are really starting to step up. Devonta Freeman has been a force all season long and he continued his strong play with fancy footwork, great field vision, and a level of toughness that the team is looking for. Vic Beasley and Ra'Shede Hageman put together their best games of the seasons and played a crucial role in shutting down the Panthers offense. Last but not least, Jake Matthews has quietly developed into one of the better offensive tackles in the league after an injury plagued rookie season. This season definitely had some darker moments, but the arrow is pointing up in Atlanta. Dan Quinn and Co. seem to have a vision on how they want this roster to look and should continue to add those pieces in the offseason.
We waited all season to see this game
It sucks that we had to wait so long, of course, but the Falcons finally put together a tough, winning effort against a great team, and they did so with a crisp passing attack, an actual pass rush, and generally aggressive play through four quarters. It gave us the sense that this coaching staff is genuinely competent, and that there's young talent dotting this roster that can grow into something special. Let this be a sign of what is to come, and being a Falcons fan is going to be a lot more fun in the immediate future.