FLOWERY BRANCH – For the first time in more than 10 weeks, it was the day after a Falcons’ loss Tuesday.
Who knew this season would bring about such an adjustment period?
As you look to get grounded again, here’s your focal point: A three-point loss to the defending Super Bowl champions who probably were just a little more desperate for a victory probably doesn’t constitute a collapse. Nor does it alter the power structure in the NFL’s playoff field. As coach Mike Smith said again Tuesday, the day after a 17-14 loss to New Orleans: “There’s 15 other teams [in the NFC] who would love to trade places with us,” and I think we can assume that includes the next opponent, Carolina (2-13).
Truth is, we know now pretty much what we knew before Monday’s loss. The Falcons and Saints are dead even. It’s not bad to be dead even with the defending champions. Also, Philadelphia, Chicago, Green Bay are all conference threats to get to the Super Bowl — not a revelation. And in games when Michael Turner (2.8 yards per carry) can’t run, the Falcons’ offense tends to shut down.
But the loss to the Saints wasn’t a horrible sign for the future. The Falcons can still achieve all of their regular-season goals — NFC South title, first-round bye, No. 1 seed — just by beating Carolina, and that game plan usually entails little more than having a pulse.
In fact, notwithstanding Smith’s position that “nothing good ever comes from losing,” there were some fairly significant positives. Some of the areas that we questioned about this team might have been answered, particularly on defense. Offense was a problem Monday, but occasional criticism of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey notwithstanding, scoring generally hasn’t been the problem this season (the Falcons are fifth in points: 25.5).
Sounds strange. But I feel better about this team now than I did before the New Orleans game.
– Despite the Saints’ 90-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes Monday, the Falcons’ secondary has been strong. They make plays. Pass defense figured to be an issue this season. But with the meteoric rise of Brent Grimes and the short learning curve of safety William Moore, it’s now a strength. Surprisingly, the biggest question mark is $57 million cornerback Dunta Robinson. Here’s your stat of the year: Four linemen — John Abraham, Chauncey Davis, Jonathan Babineaux, Kroy Biermann — each have more interceptions (1) than Robinson (0). (Smith said Robinson is “coming along” after missing training camp with a hamstring strain. Can you still be “coming along” in Week 16?)
– The pass rush pressured New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees all game (though he was sacked only once because of eight missed opportunities, when pass rushers overran him). Abraham and Babineaux in particular have been strong. Abraham has 13 sacks, the second-highest total of his career. There is no better sign for the Falcons’ postseason fortunes than Abraham.
– Monday’s game was extremely winnable. Two Falcons fumbles led to one New Orleans touchdown and prevented an Atlanta touchdown. Michael Jenkins dropped a touchdown pass (albeit, drawing a pass-interference penalty in process).
Finally, there was the decision of coach Mike Smith to punt on fourth-and-six with 2:52 left, leading to the Saints running out the clock. Smith didn’t second-guess himself on that Tuesday, though he acknowledged that the Falcons’ defense (which allowed the Saints to get two first downs and run out the clock) might have been fatigued in that 90-yard drive: “We ended up playing 75 snaps on defense, and that’s a lot of snaps. In the average game, you’re playing 60.”
Some skeptics believed the Saints would expose the Falcons. They didn’t. Monday’s loss changes nothing. This team looks ready to take the next step.
Just don’t lose to Carolina.