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Topsy-turvy Falcons Find 3-1 a Quarter after 28-3

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So, a quarter season after oblivion, who are these Atlanta Falcons?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Who are these Atlanta Falcons, exactly?

You might think you know, but you don’t. You might think you’re clueless, but you’ll know more than you think. You might be furious, and should tone it down. You might be too optimistic, and you’ll need to soften your expectations. You might be right in the middle, and still, somehow, lacking.

The Falcons are 3-1. They should be 4-0. They should also be 1-3. They don’t have a Super Bowl hangover, but then again, they kind of do. I was wrong, but then again, I was also…right? They’re not living up to their potential, but they’re also, in an odd way, exceeding what usually happens in these sorts of situations. They’re up here, and there, might be nowhere, but are going somewhere. They’re banged up, but not severely. They’re not where they need to be, are far better than they could be and are somehow right where they belong.

The 2017 Atlanta Falcons are a dad gum Dr. Seuss book.

Don’t be a Grinch – this year’s Atlanta Falcons are a good football team. They’re not perfect, they’re still settling and they’ve still got a long way to go, in many senses of the phrase. But they’re also ahead of the curve when it could have been disastrous – a far-cry from the nightmare start to the 2013 season (1-3). It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be nerve-wracking, it’s going to be a scintillating last three-fourths of the season. It’s going to be Falcons football.

Somebody punch The Cat in the Hat.

The Falcons began the season in heart-racing fashion – a 23-17 win in Chicago against a Bears team everyone underestimated. They were lucky not to be 0-1. They followed that up by thrashing the clipped Packers 34-23. They were back, baby. Then, they rode a technicality to 3-0 in Detroit. They’re good, and lucky. Then, they lose, of course, 23-17 to the resurgent Buffalo Bills, but should have won, despite being down a boatload of talent. They underperformed against a good Buffalo team, and would up going into the bye week with a slew of short-term injuries, fixable problems and a 3-1 record. They’re imperfect, but also, just starting to scratch the surface.

C’mon, doc. The one about green eggs and ham – I got that one, but this? What elementary school kid is going to understand this gobbledygook.

This perplexing team is also still probably the best in the NFC when it’s completely healthy. Throw that at the top of this head-spinning sundae.

Whew, the injuries – you can’t not mention those when trying to figure out who exactly these Falcons are. Who’s hurt? Who’s not? Julio Jones. Mohamed Sanu. Ryan Schraeder. Taylor Gabriel at the start of the season. Vic Beasley. Ricardo Allen. Courtney Upsahw. Jack Crawford. Keanu Neal. Desmond Trufant’s shaking off 2016 injury dust. Terron Ward, too.

That matters. That’s part of all of this. Those go away once the injuries heal.

Think on this too – OC Steve Sarkisian, in the middle of trying to find his footing, loses two of his best chess pieces, and nearly drives his snakebit offense to win against a lethal Bills defense. But he makes the wrong call, on 4th and 1. He makes the right call? We’re talking about an undefeated Falcons team going into the bye, with everyone jazzed about maybe going 5-0 into New England potentially fully healthy.

What a difference a play can make.

Matt Ryan – the reigning MVP – isn’t as sharp as he normally is. He’s still playing well at best and decent-enough at worst – he’s got six picks in the last two weeks – that stinks, but it happens. He’s got a week to get himself sorted out, and to get his starting right tackle and top two receivers healthy. That helps. Maybe work on the deep ball a little bit, my guy.

The defense? Depends on who you talk to. The esteemed scribbler says they’re markedly improved over 2016 – getting more pressure, making more stops, but still not without their flaws in the run game and in the intermediate passing game. Others? A disaster unit. Don’t listen to those guys. Throw those takes off Mt. Crumpet.

The next month? Not so bad. The bye week is an easy win. You get that one. Free space. As easy as Horton hearing a Who. No one could have called the week 5 bye week being a life saver. Then, the Dolphins, who just got blown out by the Saints. That should be a win. Well, Buffalo should’ve, too. The Dolphins aren’t as good, though. The Falcons should be decently healthy by that game unless smaller injuries amplify over time.

Then, the Patriots. They have, arguably, the worst defense in the NFL. They also have Tom Brady. And 28-3. Oh boy, we’ve got to talk about that. But then they have the Jets on the road. Lose that one, and you’re lucky to make it to January. That’s not the story here.

So, best case scenario, they’re 6-1 going into Carolina to start division play/the meat of the schedule. Worst case? You can’t avenge the Super Bowl in Foxboro and the Dolphins catch you on a bad week. 4-3. They were 7-5 after Kansas City last season before the run to … the Super Bowl. This is confusing. It’s too early to tell. Wait...

Oh, yeah, the Super Bowl. That thing. Heh.

The Falcons are still trying to run from the shadow of 28-3 – the pangs of 2016 haven’t been erased yet. Losing Shanahan and pressing the reset button on the defensive coaching hasn’t been totally sanded over. The injury bug, giving the team a relative break in 2016, has come to claim his rent. The Falcons are darn lucky to be 3-1. Maybe they’re unlucky to be 3-1. I don’t know, neither do you. They’ve got a little bit of a hangover – but it’s not a bad one, and it hasn’t kept them from being the best team in their division, in their conference, some argues for best in the NFL. Well, not after this week. Sorry, Power Rankings fans. But, they’re up there!

In the long run, the most meaningless stretch of the schedule is now complete for teams that don’t go 0-2. The Falcons didn’t go 0-2. They went 2-0, 3-1. At the end of the day, who cares?

Consider this the post-28-3 coal walk. The team has had to learn to carry the weight of being a top dog for the first time in Dan Quinn’s tenure. They’ve had to adapt to two new coordinators. They’ve had to play four good football teams. They’ve had to teach themselves to win when it’s close, with mixed results. They’ve had to get through the flashbacks to that fateful night in Houston that enter their cranium here and there, scars that we’d be foolish to think would just disappear with a few team platitudes and third-down conversions. They’re a bit hungover after February, but they’re healing quickly. Their feet are a little burnt, but they made it through – 3-1, nearly 4-0. They’re a handful of yards away from 4-0. They’re also a handful of yards away from 1-3.

That’s pretty darn great, all things considered. We should be happy. We’ll never be satisfied. They won’t either, for what it’s worth. We all know how this has to end.

For now, though, the Falcons are entering a week of rest to get their roster back in order, their mistakes corrected, their coaches caught up-to-speed.

It’s going to be a photo finish – it always is. Through four weeks in 2016, the Falcons were a high-spirited 3-1, heading into an unknowingly topsy-turvy October. Through four weeks in 2017, the Falcons are a topsy-turvy 3-1, potentially heading into a high-spirited October.

The ball bounces at free will. We know who these Falcons are right now — good, a little lucky, a little unlucky and with all the time and talent in the world to settle on who they’re going to be for the rest of the season — the ceiling is high, but so are the expectations.

They could end up being better, they could end up being worse, they could end up being just the same. It doesn’t matter, and it matters all the more. 28-3 has turned into 3-1. Hey, that’s math if you add it. What are the odds?

What are the odds.

Oh, the places this team will go.