Sunday’s win beautifully caps off what could have been a terrible season. The Carolina Panthers never showed up to the Super Bowl, then they never showed up to the 2016 season. The Atlanta Falcons are different, despite losing their best coordinator. They bounced back from that Super Bowl loss to a 10-6 season. Things haven’t always been pretty, but they secured a wildcard berth.
What has been pretty? That win against the Panthers. Cam Newton completed 41% of his passes and tossed three picks. Their top two running backs combined for 30 rushing yards and zero touchdowns. It was a beautiful defensive game, and the Falcons again had an uneven offensive performance. If this is how it ends, so be it, but the Falcons have a chance to have a signature win on Saturday.
Offensively, it was ugly, but the Falcons got it done in what was a must-win game. Defensively, they were solid, though they were aided by one of the worst QB performances I can remember from Cam Newton. He was throwing wildly as if a ghost was telling him to do it. That said, you can only take the cards you’re dealt, and the Falcons defense played a mighty fine hand with it. You’ve gotta be encouraged by the defense at the very least. They completely negated McCaffrey (credit to Debo) and largely prevented the Panthers from doing anything significant.
The offense, once again, was a mix of 2016 and 1977. Sometimes it’s 1977 and you want to throw Sark into the Pit of Misery, and sometimes it’s 2016 and you want to build Sark a statue. If the Falcons can just string together some offensive performances worthy of the 2016 team, they can make a run again. I truly believe they can, but unfortunately we haven’t seen anything to suggest that it’ll happen to this point. No matter how it ends, it’ll be what the Falcons deserve. They deserved this playoff spot, now we’ll see if they deserve more.
A nice way to close out the regular season as well as the year itself. In a game that the Falcons desperately needed against an opponent that is all-around a good, tough Panthers team, the Falcons did exactly what they had to do. They led the entire way, held the Panthers to 248 total yards of offense, collected three turnovers on defense, and committed zero turnovers on offense. The play calling by Steve Sarkisian was solid all-around while the execution of those plays needed a little more polish. Some may have wanted a vintage 2016 Falcons win but for a team that has been through what they have this season, this was arguably their best win of the season given the circumstances.
The Falcons were good enough. That’s all that matters, and now, the postseason is upon us. A playoff berth came on the back of too many close finishes this season; think back on how crucial that Brooks Reed sack in Chicago was, or that Brian Poole stop in Detroit, or that Deion Jones pick against New Orleans, or those missed Seattle and Tampa Bay field goals. If 2017 showed us anything, it’s that this team has learned how to finish when it has the opportunity to (unless it was against the Dolphins, because 2017 was weird like that). At this point, you look at what Atlanta has (a B offense that can play like an A offense when it wants to, a B+ defense that sometimes shrinks to a C or D-fense in crunch time when playing zone, but c’est la vie), and hope that balance can win them games this postseason. Their path is easier than some of the higher seeds since the road to Super Bowl 52 goes through a struggling Philly, but the Rams will be a major hurdle. After everything that’s happened with this team over the course of a calendar year, the best thing to do is just sit back, relax, and let it all unfold. As we’ve learned, surprises can sneak up on you at any moment. Expect nothing; anticipate everything.
Happy New Year everyone. I’ve been out of action most of the season recovering from health issues, but I hope to get back to writing again during the offseason.
The main thing that came to mind for me throughout the week leading up to the game was how it paralleled the final week of the 2014 season: wrapping things up against Carolina, with a trip to the playoffs waiting for the Falcons if they won. In that 2014 game, the offense had nothing, and the defense seemingly had even less as Mike Nolan chose to keep his two most effective pass rushers (Osi and Massaquoi) on the bench - seemingly out of pure spite. It was an embarrassing loss that sealed the fate of Mike Smith as head coach.
This time around our Falcons earned their playoff spot and denied Carolina the division title. Even better, they did it with a strong defensive performance that cemented its position as—get this—a top ten defense. Atlanta finished the regular season #9 in yards allowed and #8 in points allowed per game. They have come a long, long way in the three years since Mike Nolan had them at the very bottom of the league. Now if Sark can somehow get it together on offense, we have a chance to make some noise in the postseason.
The offense played a solid game on offense paired with a dominant defensive performance against an erratic Cam Newton to punch their playoff ticket and finish 10-6. It wasn't always pretty, but the Falcons were resilient and showcased toughness on both sides of the ball. Robert Alford and Grady Jarrett had exceptional games, with Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both notching interceptions.
Atlanta's offense was lifted by the fantastic performance of Matt Bryant, who set a career record with 4 FGs in the second half. He also nailed a 56-yd attempt, which is crazy. Ryan was off on a few throws, but otherwise had one of his better games of the season with the rushing attack struggling.
The Falcons are in the playoffs and will have to face a very dangerous Rams team on the road this week. If they can muster more defensive showings like this one, they'll have an excellent chance of advancing to face the Eagles.
When a fanbase loses hope, things goes as sour as month-old grapefruit. The tone and tenor of the Falcons fanbase in recent weeks has been one of wariness and outright hostility toward a team that had consistently made costly mistakes and disappointed. It was not surprising, then, to see how frightened everyone was at the end of the first half when Carolina tied things up.
Fortunately, hope springs eternal, and sometimes the Falcons come through. The second half featured a seemingly endless series of Matt Bryant field goals and key defensive stops, all aided by a Panthers team that seemed to have an endless supply of listlessness to draw on.
Suddenly, we’re all hopeful again. The Falcons are in the postseason and the defense appears to have legitimately figured things out, and Atlanta is still a team no opponent is looking particularly forward to playing. They could be one and done and we’ll view the season as a very mild disappointment, but I would not be at all shocked to see them make a genuine run. The talent is here, and perhaps the lumps they’ve taken all season will spark the stellar play we’ve been waiting to see.