The Falcons blended a potent passing attack with an opportunistic defense to carve out the NFL’s best regular-season record.
The offense, which featured the passing of Matt Ryan, had two 1,000-yard receivers and a 93-catch tight end and led the league in screen passes that went for touchdowns, with six.
Ryan completed 422 of 615 pass attempts (68.9 percent) for 4,719 yards with 32 touchdowns and a 99.1 passer rating. He set franchise records for attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, and touchdowns.
The defense helped the Falcons tie for fifth in the league in takeaways, with a 13-plus margin. Free safety Thomas DeCoud (six interceptions), cornerback Asante Samuel (five) and strong safety William Moore (four) led the ball-hawking efforts.
Here’s a look at 10 key plays that made a difference for the Falcons in 2012:
1. Moore set early tone
What happened: Moore stepped in front of a Peyton Manning pass intended for Jacob Tamme on Manning’s second attempt of the game. He returned in 33 yards to 1-yard line.
Why it mattered: His interception set the tone and was the first of three against Manning in the Week 2 “Monday Night Football” game.
Quotable: “We felt that if we could rattle (Manning) early, we could dictate the flow of the game. The main focus was to confuse him all game.”
Result: The Falcons used Manning’s mistakes to jump on the Broncos early, but were forced to hold on for a 27-21 victory before a raucous crowd of 70,427 at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 17.
2. Weatherspoon caused key fumble
What happened: With San Diego driving for an apparent touchdown and the lead in Week 3, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon put a hit on running back Ryan Mathews to force a fumble that was recovered by DeCoud.
Why it mattered: The Chargers were set to take a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter. Instead, the Falcons drove 96 yards on 17 plays to open a 13-0 lead.
Quotable: “I feel as confident as I ever have for sure, and a lot of that has to do with experience. … Having good experiences and bad experiences. I’m now realizing that I can do it. I can make the plays we need to make in order to win.”
Result: With Ryan operating at near peak performance and the defense confounding San Diego’s offense, the Falcons defeated the Chargers 27-3, before 61,297 fans, to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2004. Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 275 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
3. DeCoud blanketed Gates
What happened: DeCoud made an acrobatic interception of a Philip Rivers pass intended for tight end Antonio Gates along the sideline at San Diego’s 29-yard line with 1:53 left in the second quarter.
Why it mattered: The Falcons went on to score a touchdown and take control of the game with a 20-0 halftime lead.
Quotable: “We are a defense that is offensive-minded, and we want to get the ball back for our offense. I think we’ve really taken that to heart.”
Result: The Falcons defeat the Chargers 27-3 on Sept. 23.
4. Abraham’s timely forced fumble
What happened: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had picked up the first down and appeared to have secured a 28-27 victory in Week 4, but defensive end John Abraham poked out the ball and it went backwards. The ball was recovered by the Panthers short of the first down, and they elected to punt on fourth down.
Why it mattered: The Panthers could have run out the clock and secured the victory if Abraham didn’t force the fumble.
Quotable: “Well, I’m a player on this football team and I listen to coaching. And coach decided not to go for it on fourth down, so I back coach 110 percent.”
Result: The fumble set up the punt and game-winning drive. The Falcons won 30-28 on Sept. 30.
5. Ryan aired it out
What happened: Backed up at the Falcons’ 1-yard line against the Panthers, Ryan dropped back near the back of the end zone and launched a bomb to wide receiver Roddy White for a 59-yard gain.
Why it mattered: It got the Falcons into Carolina territory in position to work the sidelines and get in field-goal range.
Quotable: “(Ryan) told me to go get it. So, I knew he was throwing it to me.”
Result: Matt Bryant kicked the game-winning points with 10 seconds left in a 30-28 game Sept. 30.
6. Samuel provided spark
What happened: Samuel had a 79-yard interception return to put the Falcons up 20-13 with 2:40 to play. He stepped in front of a pass thrown by Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer that was intended for Denarius Moore.
Why it mattered: The Falcons were struggling and needed a spark in their Week 6 game.
Quotable: “Making that mistake I made is crucial. It’s on me. It’s on me. It’s my fault.”
Result: Kicker Matt Bryant made a 55-yard field goal with one second left to lift the Falcons to a 23-20 victory over the Raiders on Oct. 14.
7. Ryan to Jones, part 1
What happened: Ryan’s 63-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones with 6:33 in the second quarter put the Falcons up 21-7 against Philadelphia in Week 8.
Why it mattered: The Falcons took control of the game.
Quotable: “Our offensive line did a great job in that (opening 80-yard) drive and, really, throughout the entire day of keeping a great pocket.”
Result: Falcons roughed up Michael Vick and the Eagles to improve to 7-0 with a 30-17 victory on Oct. 28.
8. Ryan to Jones, part 2
What happened: With the Falcons down 13-10 against Tampa Bay in Week 12, Ryan tossed an 80-yard touchdown pass to Jones.
Why it mattered: Every point was important in this squeaker.
Quotable: “Julio made a great play. We had one-on-one coverage. He got an inside release on (Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson) and just tried to get back to the outside. I tried to throw it down there high and outside so he could make a play on it. He did; he made a great adjustment. That was a really big play for us this game.”
Result: Falcons won 24-23 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner on Nov. 25.
9. Samuel’s interception
What happened: Samuel stepped in front of Eli Manning’s first pass attempt and established the tone for the Week 15 rout of the defending Super Bowl champs.
Why it mattered: The Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs by the Giants after the 2011 season and needed to get off to a good start.
Quotable: “We showed we can play with the big boys.”
Result: Falcons went on to pummel the Giants 34-0 on Dec. 16 to improve to 12-2.
10. White in the screen attack
What happened: White picked up a nice downfield block from left tackle Sam Baker and scored on a 39-yard screen pass against the Lions in Week 16.
Why it mattered: The Falcons needed a win to secure the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
Quotable: “It means a lot because this was one of the goals. We wanted to play in the (Georgia) Dome and have everybody come to us, and then we’ll give them our best shot.”
Result: The Falcons won 31-18 on Dec. 22 to improve to 13-2.
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