When last the Falcons played in prime time, they lost to the New Orleans Saints on Dec. 10, 2007, the same day Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail. Twenty-four hours later, they watched on TV as their head coach demonstrated how to call hogs. Thus did a surreal season reach its nadir, and we around here were asking ourselves, “How many years before this beset team gets good again? Five? Ten? Five hundred?”
On Sunday the Atlanta Falcons welcomed a nation of TV watchers back to the Georgia Dome, and it didn’t start well. The Falcons trailed 7-0 before they made a first down and were lucky not to trail 17-0. And right about then we were thinking, “An Atlanta team plays on the big stage and lays a royal egg. Haven’t we seen this before?”
But here’s the thing: These Falcons are not the feckless Falcons of old. They can look bad, yes. But they refuse to look bad for long. They’re too resourceful, too clever, too driven. And when NBC broke for halftime analysis, the team that started so slowly was leading 14-7 and had taken control of a game going wrong.
This being the NFL, the game would wobble all over creation. But when finally the end came, the Falcons had won the thing. They got a huge kickoff return from Eric Weems. They got a go-ahead touchdown drive that had Tony Gonzalez’s fingerprints all over it — well, it would have his prints if he didn’t wear gloves — and then got a stop inside the 10 inside the final 30 seconds on a defensive sequence that had the famous cornerback Jamaal Anderson (yes!) dropping into coverage.
And here we say, not for the first time and not for the last, that the New Falcons have done more than just win enough games that they again get to splash their faces on prime time TV. They’ve become a remarkable assemblage. They’re smart and they’re tough. They can take a punch. They can deliver one, too. They can win a lot of different ways, and now they’re 4-1 and looking again like a playoff team at worst and maybe like something much better than that.
They didn’t beat the Chicago Bears because everything went right. Not much did, truth to tell. Matt Ryan threw two interceptions. The offense sustained only three drives. (Two, if you discount Roddy White’s 40-yard touchdown on a quick hitch.) The defense leaked yardage to Jay Cutler and his tight ends, but somehow you looked up after 60 minutes and saw the Bears with just 14 points. Which didn’t quite compute but sure did matter.
We’ll make much of the final few minutes, of Gonzalez’s catches and Michael Turner’s touchdown and Jamaal Anderson’s improbable coverage — Erik Coleman was assisting downfield — on Cutler’s final fling, but this was a game won in that first quarter. The Bears, coming off a bye, started fast. The Falcons were doing all they could just to hang around. But that’s the point: They hung.
Thomas DeCoud intercepted two wretched Cutler throws, and the second changed the game. White scored his touchdown and Gonzalez scored his four seconds before halftime, and from then on the Bears were chasing a game they should have been leading. And the Falcons’ defense would yield ground but not points. (Jonathan Babineaux stripped Matt Forte of the ball inside the 5 in the third quarter, Coy Wire coyly recovering.)
And if you were watching at home in, say, Bozeman, Mont., you couldn’t have watched the Falcons and said of them, “Those poor pitiful losers.” If you saw this one, you saw a team that grows with every week, that in the span of 22 months has gone from pathetic to proudly professional. You saw a team that knows how to win.