It seems like the Falcons’ defense has been giving up leads late in games for as long as I can remember. Under Mike Smith, it was a common occurrence: the team would play great in the first half, then have the famous “third quarter slump”, and they’d either barely hang on or give it up late in the fourth.
Under Dan Quinn, not much changed—other than the fact that the defense was at least fun to watch at times. In 2015, the defense would play solid football for part of the game only to eventually get torched through the air late. Last season, the Falcons offense was so downright dominant that it rarely became an issue. But on the occasions that it did—against the Chargers, nearly against the Saints in Week 17, and of course in the Super Bowl—it sunk the team. For some reason, this defense crumbled under pressure at the end of games.
As we approached the final seconds of the Falcons’ 23-17 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday, we all felt that familiar theme creeping back. In the pit of my stomach I could feel the tendrils of doubt, and the “oh boy, Falcons gonna Falcon” comments were just itching to escape my mind and wind up on Twitter. But, I never typed them—this is a new season, after all. Let’s give this defense a chance, I thought.
We all know what happened next. The Falcons let the Bears dink and dunk all the way to the 5-yard line. Chicago had 1st-and-goal. First down should’ve been a TD catch by Josh Bellamy, but he dropped it. Second down, a great pass break-up by Alford who refused to quit on the play. Third down, another play that was about half tight coverage and half poor hands. It would all come down to one last play—4th-and-goal.
There might not be a more nerve-wracking, heart attack-inducing play than a 4th-and-goal to end a game. The funny part is, it’s equally as anxiety-provoking for the offense and defense. In a way, it’s perhaps one of the purest moments in football: one team will succeed, and one team will fail. No do-overs, no second chances.
Instead of crumbling, instead of just “giving it up”, instead of any number of bad things that could’ve happened—the Falcons stopped the Bears. But they didn’t just stop them; the game wasn’t won on an incomplete pass, or a stuffed run, or a flub by the offense. The game was won on a sack by rotational EDGE Brooks Reed, snuffing out the hopes of a surprisingly scrappy Bears team and electrifying a fanbase in Atlanta that had gone years without seeing a defense capable of making such a play.
Let’s not mince words here: the defense played well during the game, but they weren’t elite by any measure. The Bears probably should have won the game on that dropped Josh Bellamy catch in the end-zone, and if they did we’d be singing a very different tune this week. Ultimately, however, Atlanta’s young defense made the plays it needed to make to win the game—and that is what is so special about this performance.
It’s hard to understate the importance of that emphatic win, especially considering the alternative. If the Falcons had given up that game-winning TD, think about what we would’ve seen this week: “The Falcons gave up another late lead”, “Atlanta’s defense still suffering from 28-3 hangover”, “this team lost to the Bears lol”. While all those takes are totally trash, that kind of garbage would be out there.
Instead, the defense gets a signature win—something to hang their hat on, something to look back on and say “we’ve done it, we’ve made the plays we needed to make to win, we’ve won games for this team”. In a way, winning a game in this fashion might have helped exorcise any remaining demons from the Super Bowl.
This young Falcons defense looks formidable, fast, and talented. Now, with a confidence-boosting defensive victory under their belts, they get to move on to the next, even greater test: stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. They will be a completely different challenge compared to what they faced in the Bears, but I think this defense will be ready for it.
Atlanta’s defense finally stepped up for them when it mattered most—they finally found a way to win. Let’s hope they continue that trend for the rest of the 2017 season.