If not for those 11 seconds, a promising season might never have become much more. If not for those 11 seconds, we might still view the Falcons more with skepticism than belief. If not for those 11 seconds, we might yet be asking if Matt Ryan was the right man to draft. If not for those 11 seconds …
Enough. Those 11 seconds? They happened. The squib kick. The Harry Douglas return and flopdown. The short Ryan drop and the lovely Ryan rainbow. The Michael Jenkins catch and toe-dance along the sideline. The Jason Elam kick of redemption. (He’d missed a field goal that would have clinched it earlier.)
Eleven seconds changed certain defeat to a victory so outrageous it still beggars belief. ESPN.com dug out this nugget: Since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, it marked only the third time a team had taken a lead inside the final 15 seconds and lost. (The first time was on Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal that beat the Detroit Lions in 1970. The second involved Quincy Carter, and not in a bad way.)
If not for those 11 seconds, the Chicago Bears make the 2008 playoffs. If not for those 11 seconds, the Falcons head into their bye week at 3-3 and sit around and wonder if all their good early work had been a mirage. If not for those 11 seconds …
Enough. That was last season. And now the Bears arrive again, and they’re better than they were a year ago. But so are the Falcons. These teams could well see each other again in January. This game might factor into something really significant, like a division title and a bye or even home-field advantage. The Bears are better because they have a new quarterback. The Falcons are better because they keep growing faster than Wilt Chamberlain in adolescence.
Five weeks ago we worried the Falcons might start slowly. They won their first two and looked good doing it. They looked less good in Foxborough in the rain, but that can happen in Foxborough. (Ask the Tennessee Titans how they enjoyed New England in the snow.) Being expertly coached, the Birds took the lessons absorbed against the Patriots and went to San Fran and stacked 45 points on the befuddled Niners, and wasn’t it just yesterday that the Falcons would lose 45-10 by the Bay?
These Falcons might or might not be in the Super Bowl come February, but this much is becoming clear: They’re going to be in that discussion, and not just this winter but in the winters to come. This is a team that transforms itself at every hurdle, that lives and learns. As good a GM as Thomas Dimitroff is, Mike Smith is that good a coach. These two aren’t going to let things go wrong for long.
Back to those 11 seconds: Had Ryan thrown an incompletion or Elam missed the winning kick, it wouldn’t have made TD or Smitty any less clever. But those 11 seconds were required to lift the New Falcons to a higher plane. And when you’re as moribund as this franchise had become, an up-from-oblivion moment is not just necessary but required.
The Falcons had their moment against the big-shouldered Bears, who’ve had 371 days to simmer. We stood amazed when the Falcons won that Sunday. Because of that Sunday, we’re no longer shocked by anything these Falcons do.
(And with that: I’m sitting live in the Dome, and I’ll be proud and pleased to entertain any and all — well, most all — comments as the night unfolds. Join me for yet another in our series of live chats, won’t you? And I guarantee this game will be better than the one at Vandy yesterday.)
(OK, now you’re asking: What if I’m wrong? What if this one’s even worse? Will I refund your money? Uh, no. But I’ll certainly offer another in a lifetime’s worth of apologies.)