WASHINGTON, D.C. – After another playoff cameo role by the Braves on Friday and the ugliness by whatever remains of Georgia and Georgia Tech on a college football Saturday, the Falcons didn’t need to accomplish much Sunday to achieve some degree of popularity.
Almost anything north of humiliation would’ve been an improvement.
They provided more than that. They won.
They weren’t great. The quarterback threw a pick-six in the second quarter. A fumbled snap ended their next possession. The offense made the NFL’s 29th ranked defense look almost impressive at times. The defense allowed Washington’s far lesser of two rookie quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins to throw a 77-yard touchdown pass (and he hadn’t taken a snap all season).
So they weren’t perfect. Or close. And yet: They’re still perfect.
They rallied with a 17-point fourth quarter to beat the Washington Redskins 24-17.
They are 5-0 for the first time in franchise history — this after being 4-0 for only the third time in franchise history. Suddenly, they are punching through ceilings.
Are they great? No. It’s a little early to phone Don Shula and ask if he’s worried about the Falcons posing a threat to the 1972 Miami Dolphins. (Hey, once you win five, how tough can 11 more be?) But in the last two games against Carolina and Washington, the Falcons managed to pull out victories in games where they seemed less than whole. That is something that really good (and potentially great) teams do.
“I’ve said since the beginning of the season that this is the best team I’ve been on as a Falcon,” said tight end Tony Gonzalez. “It might be the best team I’ve ever been on as a player. But it doesn’t mean anything? No. It feels good to be 5-0, but I’ve been 9-0 and lost in the first round of the playoffs [in Kansas City in 2003]. So we just have to go one week at a time. I know that doesn’t sound sexy but it is what it is. We’ve got a target on our back now.”
The Falcons: The hunted. Let that sink in. There’s only one other unbeaten team left — Houston (4-0), which plays Monday night.
When the NFL schedule has stretched into the second month and a team still hasn’t lost, nit-picking should be held to a minimum.
“They’re playing with a tenacity I haven’t seen in the last couple of years,” said former running back Warrick Dunn, now one of the team’s minority owners. “They’re playing with aggressiveness. When you win games where you really don’t play that great, it’s a positive sign. It shows that you can respond to adversity. That means something as you move down the road and the games get bigger.”
The Falcons sputtered offensively until late in the third quarter. The exception was Gonzalez, who had one of those just-stupid-great games: 13 catches, 123 yards, one touchdown, as a 36-year-old. The Redskins were intent on bracketing Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside but they couldn’t do anything about Gonzalez in the belly of their defense.
In the Falcons’ first five possessions, they had three punts and two turnovers. They had only seven points after eight drives, but started to take over late in the third.
“What do you want talk to us for — we stunk,” White joked when media approached.
Not coincidentally, the momentum shifted after Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was knocked out of the game by Sean Weatherspoon. (It was a clean hit: Weatherspoon crashed into Griffin as the rookie ran out of the pocket and was sliding down. The back of Griffin’s head appear to come down on Jonathan Babineaux, causing a concussion.) Cousins took advantage of a breakdown in the secondary, throwing a 77-yard TD pass to Santana Moss. But Matt Bryant tied it at 17-17 with a 53-yard field goal and Michael Turner’s 13-yard touchdown with 2:46 left gave the Falcons the lead.
The best teams find a way to get it done.
“It’s the first time since I’ve been here that we’re just going out there and expecting to win,” White said.
That’s five out of five. And this weekend, the Falcons were the city’s shining light.
By Jeff Schultz