CHARLOTTE – Confused? You’ve got company.
After three hours of witnessing a spinning compass Sunday, even Falcons players weren’t about to make any grand declarations about the next few weeks of the NFL season.
“It’s a win,” Todd McClure said later. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Welcome to Team Whiffleball.
Fortunately, style points don’t matter in the NFL, otherwise the Falcons would be off to the Music City Bowl. For one half against Carolina, they played as poorly as they have in four years under coach Mike Smith and trailed 23-7. They followed that up with one half of relative domination, scoring 24 unanswered points, winning 31-23.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez’ neat summary of the turnaround: “We jus said, ‘It’s amnesia time.’”
Which is probably what Sybil said during transitions.
A flop-flip is at least better than a flip-flop. If the Falcons had followed a great half with a crummy one and lost, nobody is talking about heart and resiliency. Nobody is talking about potential. We’re probably holding last rites over a team that devolved from Super Bowl threat to playoff contender to 7-6 and sinking like a stone — a fizzling outfit with moon-size craters on the depth chart. Fans are screaming about firing coordinators and giving up way too much in the draft for a wide receiver who keeps dropping passes.
“A loss could’ve been devastating,” Gonzalez said.
But the NFL is a league that doesn’t care about the eye test — just wins and losses.
The win puts the Falcons back in control of the wild card race. The defense pitched a second-half shutout. The offense, held to 117 yards and touchdown in the first half, rolled to 277 and three scores in the second. Julio Jones, after dropping a couple of more passes in the first 30 minutes, had two touchdowns in the second, the second going for 75 yards and leaving vapor trails in the process.
Gonzalez again: “I’m not saying I’m happy about the way we played. We did get the victory. But I think it’s kind of a lesson for us — at least to know we can come back when we have to.”
True. They just won’t have Carolina there to help every week. Cam Newton, looking rookie-ish, made awful decisions on two second-half interceptions. Olindo Mare missed a 36-yard field goal that could’ve given the Panthers a 26-24 lead with five minutes left. The Panthers put the ball on a T, and the Falcons swung and connected.
But good teams don’t become unraveled. They don’t look at the scoreboard, they just play. The Falcons could’ve deteriorated after that first half, when the Panthers, trailing 7-0, scored 23 points in roughly 12 minutes (including DeAngelo Williams’ 74-yard run and Greg Olson’s 44-yard touchdown on a screen pass). They didn’t.
The defense simplified things in the second half. It went vanilla, taking out blitzes. “We played them straight up,” John Abraham said. And it worked.
Carolina went three-and-out to open the half. The Falcons drove to a field goal. Newton unraveled. Mike Peterson intercepted an ill-advised, desperation shovel pass by the quarterback at the Panthers’ 35. Two plays later, Matt Ryan connected with Jacquizz Rodgers for a touchdown to close to 23-17. Newton threw another interception. The field tilted.
Early in the fourth quarter, Jones, maligned of late, went through his own positive mutation. He grabbed a pass from Ryan at the Panthers’ 1-yard line, turned and reached across the goal-line for the go-ahead score. Later in the quarter, he caught a pass over the middle, and then made the jump to light speed.
The Falcons don’t want to have to do this every week. But at least we again got a glimpse into their potential.
Earlier in the week, coach Mike Smith expressed concern about his team’s focus. He wasn’t completely comforted by what he saw against Carolina, but said, “We learned a lot about our football team. That’s going to pay off some big dividends down the stretch.”
But that assumes this second half represents reality, and the compass stops spinning.
By Jeff Schultz