The New Orleans Saints are gone. Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles are gone.
Can you do without the drama? Thought so.
The Falcons’ first opponent of this postseason will be Green Bay. That hardly qualifies as an easy draw. At the outset of this season, many considered the Packers the best team in the NFC. But with the potential of Vick returning to the Georgia Dome in two weeks (nobody really relished that scenario) and the possibility of a third game against division rival New Orleans (were you really hoping for a showdown game against the defending Super Bowl champions?), this was as good a scenario as the Falcons could have hoped for.
They will be at home. They have had a week off. They will be facing a Green Bay team coming off a physical and emotional win and playing in a short week.
If you wonder whether the Falcons are good enough to beat Green Bay, maybe you’ve forgotten that they beat this team in November 20-17 at the Georgia Dome, when the defense wasn’t nearly as good as it is now.
Goodbye, Saints. Goodbye, Vick.
Now it’s just about football for the Falcons and trying to remember what postseason success feels like. When they play the Packers Saturday night at the Dome, it will be six years to the day of their last postseason victory — a 47-17 dismembering of the St. Louis Rams (Jan. 15, 2005). The following week, they lost the NFC title game at Philadelphia.
Then came the slide, then the misery, then the cataclysm.
It’s there for them. They are rested and they have the advantage of playing on their home turf, where they’re 20-4 since their rebirth in 2008 and quarterback Matt Ryan is 20-2.
It’s worth noting that when the Falcons defeated Green Bay in November, wide receiver Roddy White proclaimed: “I have no plans of going to Lambeau Field in January. I plan on staying right here and sleeping in my own bed in the playoffs.”
So let’s see where their own beds and climate controlled temperatures take them.
The path to a Super Bowl is there. That’s not just because the Falcons have a smart and efficient quarterback in Ryan, a game-changer in White and a versatile offense that prefers to pound the ball with Michael Turner. It’s because of a defense that nobody talks about.
This isn’t a game of real estate; it’s a game of points. The Falcons’ defense ranked only 16th in yards allowed during the regular season and 22nd against the pass. But they finished fifth in scoring defense at 18 points per game. In the final seven games of the regular season, the Falcons allowed 17, 17, 24, 10, 18, 17 and 10 points.
Has anybody noticed that?
Jack Tatum, the former Oakland Raiders safety, once proudly declared, “I like to think my best hits border on felonious assault.” (Worth mentioning: If Tatum played in Roger Goodell’s NFL, he would be jailed merely for thinking of inflicting harm.)
The Falcons’ defense doesn’t remind you of Tatum. They seem less a felonious assault squad than they do a bunch of sneaky pick-pockets.
We just watched the New Orleans Saints give up 41 points to the Seattle Seahawks. They’re out. So is Kansas City, which allowed 30 points to a pedestrian Baltimore offense. So are the Eagles, who finished 21st in scoring defense and couldn’t stop Rodgers and the Packers when they needed to
The Falcons’ defense hasn’t necessarily been some impenetrable force. But more often than not, it has made plays to win games or hold leads.
Defensive end John Abraham, from start to finish, has been the team’s best defensive player (the numbers: 13 sacks, one forced fumble, his first career interception). But the biggest difference of late is that the secondary no longer resembles scattering ants. Cornerback Brent Grimes and safety William Moore — who spent most of his rookie season on a training table – each have five interceptions. They’re two of the big reasons the lampooning has stopped.
“We know Abe has been a productive guy,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “Those two [Grimes and Moore] really have been the next two guys in terms of lively production. Grimes really has a comfort this year playing corner in the NFL. His growth has been unbelievable. It’s been fun to watch. William makes mistakes but his interceptions and his impact in tackling are evident.”
They’re better now than the last time they played the Packers. The Saints are gone. Vick is gone. So let’s see where this road takes them.