Let’s not dance around the semantics.
The Atlanta Falcons got the paddles of life Sunday.
The team practically purchased a plot of land for the 2017 season’s final resting place last week in their boneheaded blunder-fest against the Carolina Panthers, but Sunday, they told the undertaker to take a hike.
It’s as if the soul of the 2016 team suddenly repossessed the careening carcass that was once Falcons football – you know, that one that blew a 17-point lead to the lowly Dolphins last month, the one with the blaring-red hiney (jolted by far-different paddles in a trip to Foxboro), the one either hopelessly hung over it couldn’t get out of bed or so poorly coached that they couldn’t score a touchdown in the third quarter of any game. But, Sunday, blammo, look who it is. Nice to see you, old friend. It’s been a bit.
For the first time since September, Atlanta looked like the team that nearly brought the Lombardi back to Georgia, and what a time to decide to make a reappearance.
Atlanta’s game against the Dallas Cowboys was as must-win as must-win can be. If you drop to 4-5 heading into a road game against the Seattle Seahawks, you’re practically attending your own funeral. Only this time, you’re not hanging out with Tom and Huck in the rafters.
The Cowboys win was the most impressive Falcons victory since the NFC Championship. Yes, the asterisk sets in, as Dallas was having to adjust without two of its best offensive players (RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith – vital cogs) and lost defensive leader Sean Lee mid-game, but young QB Dak Prescott and star WR Dez Bryant and Dallas’ formidable defensive front still made this one feel like a tall order for a Falcons team that has looked like a rag doll fresh from a spin in the dryer.
Whether this team reads the tweets, Dan Quinn finally unleashed a fiery tirade of a Monday morning team meeting speech to light the flame of Brotherhood, Steve Sarkisian finally found his play book after losing it in his condo, or the team really did need to have its tailfeathers handed to it in New England to fully wake up from February, the Falcons showed up Sunday, and won their season back.
The Birds overcame a few bumps in the lift-off to hit the sky with an edge they’ve only showed against the Packers this season, and they pummeled America’s Team until the final whistle blew. They weren’t pitch-perfect, but dominance allows for dimples. They rustled the Cowboys in a good-old-fashioned dust scuffle, and sent Jerry Jones’ prized fighters back to the Lone Star State with a taste not many have had to slosh around in their mouths this season – the taste of defeat, concocted by the 2016 Atlanta Falcons.
The team looked as good Sunday as those butt-whippers from last season did. For the first time since week two, the Falcons put forth a full-four quarters of excellent execution and superb play calling, particularly in the wake of losing RB Devonta Freeman to a concussion. They just won, and won convincingly.
The biggest plus: Steve Sarkisian didn’t stand in the offense’s way. Actually, believe it or not, he might be starting to figure it out. He dialed up some creativity, used Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel properly down the stretch and made some fine adjustments to the game plan when Freeman went down. He’s still up-and-down in short yardage and in the end zone, but his team has been a dropped touchdown away from putting up 20+ points in three straight performances. He’s not quite out of the woods yet, but for where he’s been, it was an inspired performance.
Though, of course, the defense. One could just write “Adrian Clayborn good” twelve-hundred times, and you’d have yourself an award-winning column. The impending free agent might have just earned himself a dump truck of Arthur Blank’s money Sunday, with the incentives from his six-sack performance rolling in and his spot on the 2018 Falcons roster with a new contract all-but-likely if Atlanta is smart.
Clayborn obviously took advantage of the youngster Chaz Green and veteran Byron Bell to notch his historic numbers (the best performance by an NFL pass rusher in the sack tally since Osi Umenyiora in 2007, one sack away from tying the all-time record for a single NFL game), but his was the best by a Falcons pass rusher...ever, and showed something very encouraging about this era of Atlanta football.
He flashed the mentality that Dan Quinn has ingrained in his Falcons – set it off.
Sunday, even after Matt Ryan had a tipped pass for interception that set the Cowboys up for the game’s first touchdown, Clayborn and his defensive lineman comrades set it off, and helped sway the momentum to Atlanta’s side of the aisle. The defense, after getting thrashed by Carolina’s ground game last week, turned it around and turned in their best overall performance of the season.
Indeed, Sunday’s win was the jolt of life that this team needed to show they’re serious about returning to the postseason. With a Seattle team rife with injuries, next Monday’s road game now looks somewhat winnable. If the team plays like this for the remaining games on the schedule, no one will beat them.
But, that’s the danger with this victory – as great as it feels, as great as it looked, it feels and looks like the Green Bay game. One where the Falcons went up against a team clipped on both sides of the ball, and dominated, and got progressively worse thereafter.
The upcoming slate (@Seattle, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Minnesota, vs. New Orleans, @Tampa Bay, @New Orleans, vs. Carolina) looks like a buzz saw for untrained eyes. Three of those games are against two of the top four teams in the NFC (Vikings, ugh, Saints), one against one of the most dangerous home teams in the NFL and three against division foes (while the Bucs are struggling and missing Jameis Winston, they can’t be counted out).
The best the Falcons look to do right now is win the rest of their home games, sweep the Bucs and shock the Seahawks. The road game in New Orleans looks like a pipe dream at the moment – Who Dat, as awful as it is to say, is a stronghold at the moment. Finish 11-5, nab the fifth seed (or, by some amazing feat, win the division), make your way from there.
The worst will see Atlanta get slapped around next week in Seattle and roller coaster their way to a 9-7, or 8-8 finish, which is good enough for a mid-round draft pick and tons of questions heading into the spring.
The truth of the matter is – we still don’t know yet what this team exactly is, and Sunday’s win really didn’t help in that endeavor. Are they the 2016 Birds, trapped in a prison of unlucky bounces and growing coordinators, ready to rise once more? Are they a lesser version of that, prone to lift your spirits and break your heart within the same afternoon? Are they something completely new and different – a team we’re going to have to follow further down the rabbit hole to really understand?
The Falcons seem to know. The mood around the locker room after the Cowboys win was said to be a message of “we told you so.”
For now, they certainly did, though, forgive us if the leash is shorter than normal. One short month took the team from Packer payday to Dolphin disaster.
It’s to be determined if these Falcons really have it and are ready, this time, to build on it, or are just prone to fumbling any and all slivers of momentum away, the cruel twist of fate befitting any Falcon this calendar year. This week, the pendulum swings in their favor.
The room to roam is seven games. The Falcons control their destiny from here.
Time will tell if this Falcons squad be a newfound fantasia of finishers, or a just fistful of fool’s gold.
Cory is an editor of fellow Falcons site Rise Up Reader, where you can find more Falcons coverage. He is a cohost of the Falcoholic game-recap podcast that airs weekly.