FLOWERY BRANCH – NFL teams generally are defined in December. That’s when the stakes tend to be the highest, the injuries tend to be the most debilitating and the coaches either look like nuclear physicists or are completely dumbfounded as to why the New England defense in Week 13 didn’t bite on the same play-action as the Oakland defense did in Week 2.
That said, we are about to find out something about the Falcons.
It’s not December. But if this football team doesn’t come through this upcoming stretch of games relatively unscathed, December may not matter so much.
The Falcons are coming off a road loss and a bye. Having the bye week so early means they’ll now play 13 straight games without a rest. They travel to San Francisco Sunday and are in a stretch that finds them playing six out of eight games on the road.
How does it get worse? Like this: Four of the next seven opponents (Chicago, Dallas, Washington, New York Giants) will be coming off bye weeks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams coming off bye weeks in the past three seasons won nearly 60 percent of the time (57-38-1, .599).
“It’s going to be a test for this football team, especially with a lot of games on the road,” Michael Turner said. “I guess we’ll see what we’re made of.”
It’s never easy to get a feel for these things. The Falcons are 2-1 and coming off a loss to New England. That’s about where most of us figured they would be. The lack of clarity has to do with the fact those two victories — over Miami and Carolina — don’t look nearly as impressive today as they did at the time. The Dolphins and Panthers are a combined 1-6.
In short, the Patriots have been the Falcons’ biggest test and the team was fairly run over (26-10).
Tight end Tony Gonzalez senses fans and media already are doubting the team. “It seems like people are all of sudden poking holes in us,” he said.
It’s at least safe to say assumptions are in short supply. The Falcons are young, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Inexperience and the potential “awe-factor” tend to come into play more in stressful situations. Like road games.
Defensive end John Abraham looked at game tape and came away convinced, “I think a couple of people got blinded by the lights. It was New England, a championship team. They really wanted to have a great game against them. But if we’d played our game, we’d have been all right.
“I was disappointed when I was at the game. Then when you watch the film, you feel worse because you feel like you could’ve played better. We didn’t give New England our best effort. We played terrible. It wasn’t like they were killing us. It was just stuff we did or we let them do to us.”
This is when a team either grows up or struggles. The Falcons have enough talent, certainly on the offensive side of the ball, to win games. But intangibles like resolve and effort decide the rest. Last season, this team grew up quickly. After losing games at Tampa Bay and Carolina by lopsided scores of 24-9, they won four of their final six on the road, before dropping the playoff game in Arizona.
As you would expect, Mike Smith spent much of the off week looking at tape. “You want to evaluate your team from top to bottom,” he said. “But with the bye week coming so early, you’re not able to do in the analytical [statistical] analysis that you normally would do. There’s not enough statistics to see any trends.”
So what stands out?
“Guys are playing hard,” he said.
The rest, we’re about to find out.