That wasn’t mere urgency at their backs on that final drive. It was utter desperation. The Falcons can read the schedule and the standings, and they know the difference between 6-5 and 5-6 is more than one game, especially when the opponent tipping the balance arrived at 1-9.
“Going under .500,” Roddy White would say later, after he’d caught the fourth-down touchdown pass that won it, “that’s desperation.”
The Falcons escaped Sunday’s game with a season’s worth of hopes still alive, but with every week those hopes are tempered by mounting reality. They started 4-1. Then they lost four of five. They were one play from making it five of six against an overmatched opponent coached by a man seemingly determined to keep both teams in the game. And even after they’d won, this was the verdict of Todd McClure, the center: “One of the ugliest wins I’ve ever been involved with.”
Said Mike Smith, the coach who works hard to say nothing: “We tried numerous ways not to win the game.”
Eventually the Falcons overcame it all — on this given Sunday. The next two might not be so kind. Philadelphia plays here next week, and then the Saints. And there’s no guarantee the Falcons will have their starting quarterback or starting tailback for either game.
Per infuriating team policy, Smith would say nothing about the injuries to Matt Ryan’s big toe or Michael Turner’s ankle. “We’ll know more Wednesday,” he said, perhaps referring to the Wednesday before Memorial Day. But the Falcons lost players at such a dizzying rate Sunday — two offensive linemen were also hurt — that erosion has to be factored into any calculation regarding playoff chances.
The locker room was full of happy talk afterward — beat the Bugtussle Bovines on fourth-and-goal and you’re excited — but there was reality interspersed. The Falcons were outgained and largely outplayed by a Tampa Bay team working behind a rookie quarterback. Their only touchdown in the first 59 minutes and 37 seconds came on a gimmick play. Their quarterbacks were sacked six times. They missed (another!) field goal. They had a punt blocked. They lost a fumble. They were lucky as heck to win.
“That was a good football team we played today,” said Smith, lying.
Said Tony Gonzalez, who caught four Chris Redman passes on the frantic final drive: “We had so many things going against us … Winning this game is really a credit to the way we work.”
Well, yes. It was that. But it was also further evidence that these Falcons lack a separation gear. They led 10-0 but trailed 17-10. They needed six passes inside the 10 — one incompletion was overridden by defensive holding — to score the winning points. White finally made the decisive catch but only after not making the decisive catch three snaps earlier.
The Eagles and Michael Vick are up next — “The winner of this game is going to make the playoffs,” said White, thinking a bit too far ahead — and that will be taxing for all involved even though Vick’s role has been reduced to a cameo. Beyond this arduous fortnight lie three seemingly winnable games, but it took so much to win this one at home that you wonder if the Falcons, to use a Mark Richt expression, have enough juice.
Asked how the mood would have been had that fourth-down pass fallen incomplete, McClure said: “It wouldn’t have been pretty. But that’s the nature of the NFL. One play can change the mindset of a team.”
At issue isn’t so much the minds of the Falcons as their bodies. They haven’t been quite as good as advertised, and now they’re losing men. They still have a realistic chance to make the playoffs, but they might not have enough players.