(UPDATED: 11:30 p.m. The New York Giants defeated Dallas, which means the Falcons will face the Giants next Sunday at 1 p.m.)
If there is one absolute this season about the Falcons, it’s that they know how to wipe their feet on the lampooned and downtrodden. They create excitement for punch-drunk fan bases dreaming of Andrew Luck. They can beat any team that has been considered as an emergency replacement by the Big East.
But can the Falcons win a playoff game and, you know, actually beat somebody good?
They beat Jacksonville. They beat Indianapolis. They beat Carolina twice. They didn’t beat Tampa Bay on Sunday so much as they dodged exploding parts and avoided hyperventilating from laughing. The Falcons led 42-0 after 23 minutes — aided by three turnovers — pulled most of their starters early and somewhat wobbled to the finish line (not that the wobble of backups really matter), winning 45-24.
They made the playoffs. They finished the regular season with a record of 10-6. Not great, given the adjusted standards in Flowery Branch, but certainly not awful.
Still, have you ever bought one of those build-it-yourself desks from a cheap furniture store, and then, seemingly 17 minutes after you’ve tightened the last Swedish screw into pressboard and placed your computer, printer and books on top, one of the legs folded like linguini?
That’s kind of where we’re at with the Falcons. They went 8-3 after a 2-3 start this season. But given who’ve they’ve beaten and who’ve they’ve lost to, it’s fair to wonder if they’re going to turn into limp pasta in the postseason when they’re under more pressure.
Careful about conclusions. The Falcons just annihilated a team that finished the season with a 10-game losing streak. (That’s not a franchise record. Oh, did this postgame cry for a John McKay quote.) It makes you wonder how the Bucs beat the Falcons in Week 3.
The Falcons’ last four wins came over Minnesota, Carolina, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, teams that finished with a composite record of 18-46. They went only 1-4 against the NFL playoff field (the only win coming over Detroit).
They went 2-4 against teams that finished with winning records (Tennessee was the other one), 7-1 against teams with losing records and 1-1 against .500 teams.
You don’t indict a team for beating schleps. But skepticism is completely appropriate.
The question isn’t whether the Falcons have the talent and experience to win a road playoff game over the New York Giants next Sunday. They do. The question is which Falcons’ team will show up.
“People are going to have their doubts about us until we go into the playoffs and do some good things,” tackle Tyson Clabo said. “Just because we feel like we have the talent to do some special things doesn’t mean anything. We have to perform. You can’t just write down the roster and decide who wins from there.”
When Detroit lost to Green Bay Sunday, the Falcons were handed the NFC’s No. 5 seed on a platter, meaning they didn’t have to travel to New Orleans next week. They will still be on the road for the entire playoffs (barring an implausible NFC title match-up with Detroit), but running back Michael Turner offered, “It’s been proven over time that seeds do not matter.”
We know that to be true. The Falcons were the No. 1 seed last season and got drop-kicked by Green Bay.
Quarterback Matt Ryan played less than a half. He stuck around long enough to throw two touchdown passes and establish a new single-season franchise record for passing yardage. Running back Michael Turner also spent the second half reclining, after rushing for 172 yards and two touchdowns (one for 81 yards) on 17 carries.
We witnessed three interceptions by the Falcons’ defense, a pick six by linebacker Curtis Lofton, a sack and forced fumble by John Abraham.
We saw why general manager Thomas Dimitroff believed wide receiver Julio Jones was worth more than a few draft picks. Jones had a 17-yard touchdown catch to make it 14-0. On Tampa’s first ensuing play from scrimmage, Josh Freeman had a pass intercepted by Dominique Franks at the Bucs’ 48. On first down, Ryan fired a pass to Jones near the 15-yard-line. Jones collided with safety Tanard Jackson, made the catch anyway, went down, got up and then pulled defenders with him into the end zone.
Plays like that show us what potential this team has. But if doubts remain, it’s not a mystery way. Not enough highlights have come against good teams.
By Jeff Schultz