This season has been a weird one for Falcons fans. Coming off a Super Bowl loss and loaded up with talent on both sides of the ball, pretty much everyone expected the Falcons to at least be competitive in the 2017 playoff picture. They started out better than expected, hitting 3-0 and riding high heading into a home match-up with the Buffalo Bills.
The “incomplete forward fumble” cost them a chance at that game, but there was still plenty of optimism about the Falcons going forward. An easy game against a putrid Dolphins team loomed after the bye week. Atlanta appeared to have that game in the bag, up 17-0, but we all know what happened next: the team apparently left the stadium at halftime and allowed 20 unanswered points, losing the game in about the worst manner imaginable.
Up next was a chance at redemption against the Patriots, but the Falcons would again come out completely flat—they managed only 7 points against what was the worst defense in the league and looked horrible throughout. They scraped out a fairly efficient win against the Jets in a monsoon, only to follow that up with another blown lead against the Panthers. Needless to say, there wasn’t much optimism heading into a match-up with the 5-3 Cowboys last weekend.
But instead of continuing their weak, uninspired, and sloppy play, the Falcons came out and punched the Cowboys in the mouth. They weathered an early blunder and took control of the game just before halftime, never relenting and thoroughly dominating a Dallas team that had been riding a 3-game winning streak.
Sure, the Cowboys weren’t at full strength—Ezekiel Elliott had just been suspended and All Pro LT Tyron Smith was out with an injury. But that’s no excuse for the complete beatdown they endured at the hands of the Falcons. Maybe, with their backs against the wall, this Falcons team finally started to harness their true potential. We’ve known all along they were too talented to be barely hanging around in the playoff picture at 4-4—in the NFL, talent usually wins out in the end.
After witnessing that impressive game, on both sides of the ball and for all four quarters, have we finally seen the real 2017 Falcons?
There are reasons to be hopeful, and also reasons to be cautious. For one, this team is talented enough to beat any team at any time. The coaching and unforced errors had been holding them back. Their luck had turned sour after a 2016 season in which a lot of things went their way. According to PFF, Matt Ryan has 8 INTs on only 2 INT-worthy passes. That is catastrophically bad luck.
The defense has also had bad luck with turnovers. There have been at least ten dropped INTs this season, and the team has actually been forcing fumbles at a pretty good rate. Before the last two weeks, the Falcons simply weren’t recovering any of them. Turnovers, by their very nature, are random—they require the intersection of a mistake by your opponent and being in the right place at the right time. Again, the Falcons have simply been the victim of some truly atrocious bad luck in these situations.
That luck is likely to turn around at some point, looking at simple laws of probability. We’ve already seen it start to happen with the fumbles. If they can start getting their hands on some of these INTs (and not negate them with penalties), that could go a long way to helping this team defeat some of their more difficult opponents.
We’ve also seen this defense really start to play well. Whether you think they’re legitimate or not, the Falcons are 7th in total yardage and 10th in scoring. They are a top-10 defense by the two most recognized metrics, and it’s not like they got there by playing a bunch of terrible offenses: Green Bay, Detroit, New England, and Dallas are all very talented opponents.
The Falcons’ offense is also talented enough to be one of the NFL’s best units—coaching and execution have held them back. Against Dallas, they were better in both respects. Sarkisian deserves a little credit for adding a bit more “Shanahan” to the offense, in the form of more consistent outside zone runs, better usage of pre-snap motion, and the return of some creative personnel and route packages—like the PA rollout to the TE in the red zone.
This defense has improved in a big way from 2016, and the offense may be starting to find its footing again. If the team can start to utilize their talent and cut down on the unforced errors, they can be legitimate contenders. The division crown is a difficult goal at this point—but with 5 NFC South games remaining, it’s certainly possible.
On the other hand, there is reason for caution and doubt. This team has been wildly inconsistent in 2017, following up a 3-game winning streak with a 3-game losing streak, and then playing like a .500 team in the interim. They’ve lost a lot of very winnable games in dumb fashion. The special teams play has been consistently bad, and that isn’t likely to drastically improve.
But in the NFL, mistakes and coaching errors can be fixed. It’s not always easy to do so, and it’s never a guarantee, but it’s possible. Talent deficiencies cannot be fixed, especially after the trade deadline. The Falcons’ issues—despite how painful they’ve been to watch—are correctable. Atlanta has used up all their mulligans already this season, as they don’t have much room for error at 5-4 with 7 games remaining.
I choose to be optimistic, as with a win on Monday Night Football the Falcons would take over the 6th seed and be right back in the mix at 6-4. Back-to-back wins against two of the NFC’s playoff contenders would go a long way to convincing everyone that this team has finally hit their stride. I hope that they can finally realize their potential, and close out the 2017 season strong.
What do you think about the 2017 Falcons? Is the team we saw on Sunday against Dallas the “real” Atlanta, or was that just a flash in the pan?