East Rutherford, N.J. — The Falcons lost a game but saved a season. If that sounds convoluted … well, try this: On the day the Falcons fell to 5-5, they nonetheless demonstrated why this will be that forever-sought second consecutive winning season.
Or this: The Falcons lost a game but found a quarterback.
The first half was wretched. It ended with the Falcons down 17-7 but was far more distressing than that. The defense was awful, which we’ve come to expect, and Matt Ryan was just as bad, which has become a recent phenomenon. But in the second half things changed: The defense was still bad, but the Iceman again, er, cameth.
Ryan in the first half: Six completions in 11 attempts with a long gain of 18 yards, two sacks, one fumble. Ryan in the second: Twenty completions in 35 attempts, two touchdowns, no turnovers, no sacks. The first half he looked like a rookie, and this is the guy who never looked like a rookie when he was one. The second half he looked like a pro.
Said Tony Gonzalez, who caught seven second-half passes including the overtime-inducing touchdown with 28 seconds left in regulation: “There’s definitely some confidence to be taken from this.” And then: “It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t have gotten the ball [to start OT]. ”
Well, yes. The Falcons lost the coin toss — for the second time Sunday, Ryan called “tails”; he was 0-for-2 on coin tosses — and never touched the ball again except when Michael Koenen’s toe met leather. The Giants moved expeditiously, as you figured they would. (New York gained 456 yards on the day, 384 on Eli Manning’s passes.) And that was that. Game effort in a big game but ultimately a loss.
But not totally a loss. At halftime it was possible to see the Falcons as a a team going way wrong. They’d lost three of four after starting 4-1, and now they were playing as if overmatched and overwhelmed. Even with a kind schedule the rest of the way, there was no guarantee this team playing this way would break .500, let alone slide into the playoffs.
The second half, however, made us rethink. This defense won’t ever be anything of substance, but this offense still has that potential. The Falcons won’t play a better defense than New York’s, and at some point Michael Turner will return.
Matt Ryan returned Sunday. He played scared in the first half. Nobody associated with the Falcons would admit as much, but there seemed no other explanation. Having thrown 10 interceptions over the past five games, he was unwilling to risk throwing anything chancy, anything deep. The result was an offense that dared little and still yielded a turnover when Ryan held it too long.
The second half was a transformation. Said Roddy White: “We knew we had to go out and score. And we were on the field so long the defense got tired.”
These were the Falcons’ second-half possession: Touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown — all on drives of 63 yards or longer. Ryan was again letting it fly, stepping into the teeth of the mighty Giant rush. Said Gonzalez: “We were on a roll. We moved the ball up and down the field.”
If this season is to be saved, the offense must do the saving. On Sunday the offense surged from 14 points back to force a fifth quarter. And that offense playing that way can still hoist this team to 10-6 and a wild card.
Said Ryan: “As a quarterback, you have to continue to play the way you’re supposed to play.” His perseverance bore fruit Sunday. He fought through the first downturn of his NFL career and nearly conjured up an astonishing victory.
He’ll be fine now. His team — the offensive part, anyway — will be fine, too. “There are no moral victories,” Ryan said, but on this he was wrong.