Let’s put aside for a moment that the Falcons set out to serve us a gourmet meal Sunday but their quest for perfection was slightly marred by the overcooked lobster and then dropping the dessert in our laps.
They won again. That’s what they do after losses. No matter how physical or emotional it was. No matter how long public debate seems to stretch into the following week. Of all the things this regime has achieved, one of the most remarkable is that the team’s ability to rebound after defeats.
The latest illustration was Sunday’s 23-17 win over Tennessee, which came on the heels of last week’s overtime loss to New Orleans. The game may have left an after-taste, the result of the offense turning six red zone possessions into only two touchdowns. But there’s something to be said for this team’s resilience.
Under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are now 16-3 after losses, eight straight wins and 4-0 this year.
“It says a lot about the team,” Smith said. “Regardless of the outcome, we know it’s a long season, we know we have to move on to the next game. From the first day we talked about what the formula is for a successful football team. Part of that is putting defeats behind you. We don’t let things linger.”
Smith hammered it home again Saturday night. His speech to the team, while short on pyrotechnics or even some great revelation, apparently struck the right chord with players.
“It wasn’t anything big, but I think what he said went to everybody’s heart,” center Todd McClure said.
“We’re at a point in the season now where we really need to start hitting our stride,” said tight end Tony Gonzalez. “We’re almost there — we’re not there yet. As Smitty said, we have to start putting things in overdrive. When we have a team down, let’s step on it.”
For most of Sunday, the Falcons looked like the kind of team Smith embraces: physical on both sides with a dominating running game and a stout defense.
Michael Turner, who rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, said, “Sometimes you have to remember why this team was put together. You have to play smart and play physical. We haven’t been doing that lately. We were losing focus in games.”
The Falcons opened the season with a borderline humiliating loss at Chicago, but rebounded with an emotional win over Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles. Losses to Tampa Bay, Green Bay and New Orleans were followed with wins over Seattle, Carolina and Tennessee, respectively.
They haven’t lost consecutive games since Dec. 6 and 13 of 2009, a streak that has reached 29 games.
“I don’t think it’s arrogance or overconfidence,” Gonzalez said, “but every game we’ve lose this year we felt, ‘Man, we could’ve had that one. Even the Chicago game.”
This isn’t to say the Falcons don’t have flaws. They do. The offense walked over Tennessee with 432 yards. They had a 100-yard rusher, a 316-yarder passer (Matt Ryan) and a 147-yard receiver (Roddy White).
But the result of six red zone possessions were two touchdowns, three field goals and a fumble. Maximum potential: 42 points. Falcons’ net: 23. Great teams don’t leave so many points on the field.
This should have been a lopsided win. But when Titans rookie backup quarterback Jake Locker threw two late touchdown passes, there were a few tense moments on the Atlanta sideline.
But the Falcons played with an attitude and a physical edge they sometimes have been missing. Titans running game Chris Johnson (12 carries for 13 yards) was outgained by one Matt Hasselbeck scramble (17 yards).
That kind of defense will serve this team well. So should the schedule. The Falcons’ 6-4 record doesn’t sparkle but the final six games present great possibilities. Three of their remaining opponents — Minnesota (2-8), Carolina (2-8), Jacksonville (3-7) — have a combined record of 7-23. If the Falcons sweep those, that gets them to nine wins before even addressing the other three opponents (Houston, Tampa Bay, New Orleans).
It all sets up for a nice playoff run. They could use a few more touchdowns. But at least we know resilience isn’t an issue.
By Jeff Schultz