If I told you on Saturday evening that the Atlanta Falcons would beat the Carolina Panthers, 24-10, on Sunday, and that the defense would play the biggest role in that victory, you’d start driving around your neighborhood and honking your horn with reckless abandon.
It’s been a dream of Falcons fans for years to watch a team that fields a competent defense and understands how to play its best football when it matters. For years (and years, and years), Atlanta has been the classic frontrunner, the team that strikes you with the lightning of finesse in the first half and wilts like a desert rose the second it faces any bit of adversity.
Outside of his electric rushing attack, Arthur Smith’s greatest accomplishment as the head coach of the Falcons has been to instill more of a backbone in the franchise. Even when things get ugly (and they’ve gotten ugly), this team always feels like it’s got a punch or two left in it to keep the fight going. Smith’s Falcons have rarely been the most talented team on the field, but they’ve never been pushovers. They don’t have any quit.
Sunday’s victory over the Panthers didn’t necessarily hint at a Super Bowl coming to Flowery Branch anytime soon. It was sloppy, at times downright disenchanting, and rarely without various swear words of joy and jeer hurled at your television. However, the Falcons won by 14 points. Like, they didn’t just sneak out of the stadium. They won convincingly.
You can rightfully gripe about the struggles of the passing game, and you still can’t anoint Desmond Ridder as the franchise’s long-term answer at quarterback. It’s fair to wonder where the pass rush was for stretches of the game, and it’s fine to feel disappointed that the team’s quality offensive line didn’t always hold up against Carolina’s defensive front.
The Falcons have a ton to clean up, but so do most of the NFL’s other 31 teams. The team’s errors feel much more like spilling a glass of milk on your hardwood floor than accidentally knocking over an ICEE machine at a gas station. Rather than questioning if this is “the same old Falcons,” this feels like a different team with different problems and different promises.
Smith’s Falcons aren’t really the type to always blow leads. They’re the type that have shown an ability to shake off slow starts (very slow starts at times) and put themselves in a position to win. They might not air the ball out much, but they’ll punish you on the ground with what already might be the best one-two punch in the NFL with Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier.
The defense actually looks more genuinely talented than sneakily scrappy, and the team’s overall mentality looks much more resolute than shell-shocked when things get tough. Smith didn’t have his finest day as a play caller, but his coaching staff made crucial adjustments at halftime and he got in his bag when it mattered the most.
Also, consider that Smith was probably being protective of Ridder’s development with the play choices on a day when he was under far too much duress by an aggressive defensive line that this offensive front has struggled with in the past. Thankfully, he let Ridder sling it a bit more at the end, and it wouldn’t make much sense for this team to walk that back.
Few teams in the NFL looked like juggernauts on Sunday, and even the ones that did might be sniffing more fool’s gold than a California jackpot (hi, Cleveland). The 2023 Falcons still have a lot to work through, but the dramatic culture shift and the long-gestating attempt to turn over the roster with “the right guys” seems to be paying off.
The upcoming games against the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars will be three of the toughest of the season. However, again, these Falcons are tough. They might not be in a position to go on a win streak, but they look like they can at least be competitive.
That’s what you want, right? This franchise was in the basement by the end of 2020, and Smith has combined with general manager Terry Fontenot to make this a respectable team. It’s still a work-in-progress, and it’s not clear when this will really click like hoped. However, this team keeps trending upward. If Ridder can get more comfortable and open up the passing game, this team might actually be what we were hoping they’d be this fall.
It’s easy to get dismayed when the Falcons struggle. Goodness knows we’ve all watched far, far too much bad Atlanta football for one lifetime, and we’ve got a long season to see if this team can live up to its potential. However, we’re not just dreaming of a better tomorrow right now. Sunday’s win was proof in the pudding. In a business defined by very simple results, the Falcons got those results. They won by 14 points to get a winning record.
Even if this season has its ups and downs (and heaven knows it will), Smith and Fontenot’s Falcons showed that they’re still trending in the right direction. Patience is a hard thing to ask of a fanbase that’s endured what it has, but patience will be the key to making it through this upcoming season. It won’t be perfect, but it won’t need to be to be a success.
These are not the same old Falcons we’re used to watching. We’re still not entirely sure where this will end, but it’s hard not to see more glimmers of the vision than ever before. These Falcons might actually be pretty good this year, with room to grow.