(Updated: 1:15 a.m.)
DETROIT – With no guarantees for the future, the Falcons nonetheless did all they could Saturday night to comfort its fan base and fire a warning shot over the rest of the NFL’s playoff field. They are ready this time.
The bandwagon still seemed half-empty after 11 wins. The 34-0 bodyslam of the New York Giants last week caused a majority of skeptics to reconsider their position.
But after Saturday’s 31-18 win over the Detroit Lions, the doubters almost certainly represent an extreme minority, like those few purchasing the only sweater at full retail before Christmas.
This was a test for the Falcons. They passed. They didn’t “go cool,” as tight end Tony Gonzalez had put it days after the win over the Giants. They stepped on the gas. They jumped out to a 21-3 lead on three touchdown passes by Matt Ryan. They survived some hiccups in the third and rebounded when Ryan orchestrated one of the best scoring drives of the season, with six straight completions and a 16-yard scramble (where did that come from?)
Ryan completed 25 of 32 for 279 yards and four touchdowns. For the second straight week, he looked as good as he has at any time in his career.
You wanted a statement? This was it. A win over the Lions doesn’t equate to a win over the Giants in marquee value. But it says something about a team’s strength, character and direction when it can win this kind of game. They’ve rendered the final regular season game against Tampa Bay meaningless. They’ve clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home field through the playoffs.
Now all they have to do is make this count for something.
“It means a lot because this was one of the goals,” wide receiver Roddy White said. “We wanted to play in the (Georgia) Dome and have everybody come to us, and then we’ll give them our best shot.”
White led the Falcons with eight catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns. And it’s hard to look good when you’re a receiver playing in the same game as Calvin Johnson. The former Georgia Tech star finished with 11 catches for 225 yards and broke Jerry Rice’s single season NFL record for receiving yardage.
Lions’ fans in Ford Field exploded after Johnson’s record-breaking catch. The Falcons didn’t mind because they had already secured the win and everything they came for.
“I like our chances (in the playoffs) a lot better at home with the Dome rocking,” Gonzalez said. “But it doesn’t mean anything obviously. We still have to go out there and play. It doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. We still have to go out there and play some great football.”
They still have something to prove. But the Falcons are a team with direction. The Lions are a team in need of a fire extinguisher. They seem to be in a perpetual grease fire.
How is it that a franchise can have a jewel of a player like Johnson and yet be 4-11 with a seven-game losing streak, long-since exterminated from playoff contention? Lions’ fans exhibited two emotions in the first half: They cheered Johnson and booed almost everybody else.
The Falcons lquickly eased concerns of a letdown following the win over the Giants. They played fast, jumping out to an early lead. They seemed loose. In pre-game warm-ups, all of the players huddled around wide receiver Harry Douglas, who exhibited some break-dancing moves, jumping up in the air and doing a belly landing on the turf. (Wasn’t he just on the injury list with sore ribs, or was that a smoke screen?)
Ryan was at the center of the early assault. He completed his first 12 attempts. In the half, he went 15-for-16 for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
There was that one incomplete intended for Julio Jones in the end zone. Wimp.
Ryan actually had 22 straight completions before that pass, two short of the NFL record, going back to the Giants game. Ryan laughed when asked about the near-record, saying, “They told me about it after the game. But I was preoccupied with other things. … It’s one of those things you don’t really talk about on the sideline. Don’t feed the demons.”
It was 7-0 in the first quarter after White, on a third-and-1 play, burned ex-Falcon Chris Houston for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter. It was 14-3 in the second after Ryan checked down to White, who took advantage of a great down-field block by Sam Baker on Detroit Louis Delmas, who streaked 39 yards for another score.
The Lions’ second fumble of the game — by Johnson at the Lions’ 40 – set up the Falcons’ third score. On second down from the 16, Ryan lofted a pass toward the back right corner of the end zone for Jones, who made the catch and somehow dragged both feet in bounds to make it 21-3.
At that point, it seemed like the Falcons’ only chance of losing this game depended on how many nations Johnson would conquer in one night. He had nine catches for 178 yards through three quarters. It was he and quarterback Matthew Stafford who largely engineered a 60-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter that suddenly made things uncomfortable in Falcons’ land (21-13). An ensuing field goal made it 21-16.
But Ryan restored order. Just as he took over in the Giants game last week, he took over again, completing six straight passes. He had a 16-yard scramble on second-and-17. And after completions to White, Jones and Gonzalez, who does Ryan throw to for the one yard touchdown? Michael Palmer. That made it 28-16.
Asante Samuel picked off Stafford on Detroit’s next possession. That pretty much was it. The Falcons were soon celebrating a win, a bye week and a No. 1 seed.
We’ll soon find out what it means. But they have to like the view.
By Jeff Schultz