There’s a memory I want you to go back to in your jangled-up Dirty Bird noggin if you can – it’s okay, no one’s expecting you to be working at full marble capacity after that gut-wrenching season opener.
No, it’s not the Super Bowl. No one should ever force you to remember … that … though it’ll come back into play, naturally. No, it’s not last year’s sickening Falcons Week One fiasco, where Famous Jameis and those dastardly Buccaneers pillaged Atlanta on their home turf, leading the now-defunct Fire Shanahan Choir to belt out its best performance, though it’s absolutely something we’ll talk about.
Go back to the start of the 2013 season.
The Falcons are ready. They’re loaded up for the grand march to Super Bowl 48 after missing out on a trip to 47. They got close – so dad gum close – to finally getting back to the Big Game for the first time since that mystical 1998 season. The team’s approach? Get younger on each side of the ball – by about 25 minutes. Out went Burner Turner and Abe, in came Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora.
The first test? A trip down to the World’s Worst Sports Place: the Superdome, housing grounds of the despised ‘Aints.
It’s close – far too close for comfort (per tradition). The Falcons and Saints have gone back-and-forth with momentum swings. It’s the fourth quarter – the Who Datters have just scored a field goal to get the 23-17 lead on Atlanta. The ball is in Matt Ryan’s hands. He, Julio, Roddy and the gang drive it all the way down to the New Orleans goal line. Knock, knock, knocking on redemption’s door…
First down? Nothing. Second down? Nada. Third down. Zilch.
Fourth down … your heart is racing, foot tapping, phone clenched firmly in your palm. Ryan goes back to throw, and it’s …
Intercepted. Roman Harper. Ballgame. Saints win. Falcons lose. 23-17. Those ten yards got further and further away with each and every snap from that moment on. So far away that it ended an entire era of Falcons football and sent the team to look into the great abyss, wondering what was next.
Ok, come back to now, a place where you’re now just about down from the adrenaline rush that was the Falcons opening game in a post-28-3 world.
The Falcons are ready. They seemingly got better in the offseason after that disastrous Super Bowl collapse no one can run from. The entire fan base was excited about what was ahead, but sure, you had the little guy in the back of your brain that wondered about a hangover. What if nothing can prevent it? What if it’s just destiny? The team has strongly indicated that’s not the direction it’s headed – it’s been well-documented, dissected to a tee.
The first test? A trip up to the Windy City to face whatever in the world the Bears were going to be. Expectations were not high among fans of an even fight. ‘Tis the fallacy of all of us who don’t get paid to do this NFL thing for a living.
It’s close – far too close for comfort (per tradition). The Falcons and Bears have gone back-and-forth with momentum swings. It’s the ending moments of the fourth quarter – Da Bears have just struck gold with their offense – put-upon QB Mike Glennon finally finding a rhythm in his passing game; the Falcons defense, well, was looking a little gassed after playing lights out for the previous three-and-some quarters (uh-oh, what else does this remind you of?). The Bears drive down to the their red zone. Glennon’s got soon-to-be-star RB Jordan Howard and explosive rookie RB Tarik Cohen in his back pocket. The Falcons have whatever energy and heart is left on their defense. Knock, knock, knocking on disaster’s door…
First down? Nothing. Second down? Nada. Third down? Zilch.
Fourth down … your heart is racing, foot tapping, phone clenched firmly in your palm. Glennen goes back to throw, and it’s…
A SACK. BROOKS REED, WITH HIS FLOWING LOCKS OF WONDER. Falcons win. Bears lose. 23-17.
Yeah, 28-3 just got a little easier to get over.
No one can tell you precisely how Atlanta will do this year. Sunday, they looked pretty darn good for a team with two new coordinators and new starters in a rival atmosphere where an unexpected rookie made his emergence, the refs gave the Bears more than a few breaks and the Turf Monster notched another “W” in his undefeated win/loss columns.
The Falcons had a little more to get adjusted to than anyone wanted to admit – OC Steve Sarkisian was making his first NFL regular season play calls…ever…and new RG Wes Schweitzer was going up against a force in DE Akiem Hicks, who had just gotten the biggest windfall of his career less than 24 hours prior. Oh, and don’t forget about FB Derrick Coleman, the lead blocker in the highly-vaunted Falcons run game, taking his first game snaps since the 2015 season. And, two rookies on defense – LB Duke Riley and DE Takk McKiney getting their toes wet against what we now know is the rising backfield of the NFL. See what I mean?
It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t pretty (besides everything involving TE Austin Hooper, all of that was beautiful-pretty), but it was finished. And it was a win. And, dad gum it, after sinking to the deepest depths of public embarrassment in NFL history, a 23-17 road win in a hostile environment doesn’t seem so bad right now.
Four years ago, once again, the Falcons couldn’t finish after a crushing moment for the franchise. Today, after the franchise’s most crushing moment, they did indeed finish. Didn’t matter how. They got the win, and so much more.
Sometimes, it’s those last-minute stunning victories that mean the most. You don’t remember the blow-out, but you sure as sunshine remember the nail-biters. Sunday, the Falcons won. More importantly, they won when it seemed like they might not. That’s what you call finishing.
How is this team going to get over 28-3? By winning games like that.
What’s next, you may ask? It’s hard to tell. The 2016 Falcons didn’t look this good at this point in the season – their last-minute comeback against Tampa Bay was thwarted; Kyle Shanahan was sitting in a pot of boiling water; some wandered if this was the end of Matt Ryan; the defense was on trial for a federally punishable number of missed tackles and blown coverages. The team was going into Oakland, fearing the dreaded 0-2 mark.
They won that trip to the Bay Area. A few months later, Shanahan won Assistant Coach of the Year, Ryan won MVP, and the defense was praised as a unit that shut down Aaron Rodgers on the road to the Super Bowl. For a half, it shut down Tom Brady.
Moral of the story? Don’t read too much into Week One of the NFL.
But, you can read into a few things, if you’d like:
- The Sarkisian era of Falcons football is going to need a little time to get its legs under it. The talent will cover up the gaps in skilled play calling so the unit is always at least serviceable, but the new OC should be having his cogs in order by at least midseason, if not sooner. The *big* battle isn’t until Week 7 at Foxboro, anyway.
- The defense is enormously improved, with the sloppy mistakes on defense easily correctable (and are kind of to be expected) in Quinn’s scheme.
- Ryan is already producing in a slightly-altered scheme, which bodes well for Atlanta’s transition period under Sark.
Oh, one other thing – Quinn’s Falcons have what it takes to finish, to win when the going gets tough, to get over 28-3.
The Falcons in 2013 didn’t have it – these Falcons do. They’re going to be a good team.
How good? I wish I could tell ya. And I can’t wait to find out.