The bye week arrives at a propitious time. The Falcons are 5-2, owners of the NFC’s best record. (The Giants would likewise be 5-2 if they beat Dallas tonight.) They’ve done good work. They’re capable of better.
The bye week brings time to refocus and recalibrate. Everything the Falcons believed about themselves when they reported to training camp has been borne out: They are indeed a massively gifted team. We saw as much Sunday when the Bengals brought a bunch of brand-name players — Carson Palmer, Cedric Benson, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Adam “Pacman” Jones — to the Dome. The Falcons built a three-touchdown lead, tossed it away and then surged backed ahead by two touchdowns.
And therein we bore witness to both the Falcons’ inherent potential and their one liability. They’re good enough to beat anybody, but sometimes they don’t seem to grasp how good they can be. Oh, they talk about it. They pay lip service. But I’m not yet sure that there pulses within this team the rock-solid belief — as opposed to the suspicion — that its manifest destiny is the Super Bowl.
New England bears that belief. Pittsburgh, too. But those teams have been there and won it all, and the Falcons have graced the game with the Roman numerals only once, and that was four coaches ago. The Falcons are 25-14 under Mike Smith but haven’t yet won a playoff game, losing at Phoenix in January 2009 as a road favorite. And for all the fine players imported by Thomas Dimitroff — Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Mike Peterson, Dunta Robinson — not one of them wears a Super Bowl ring.
And that’s really the only flaw I see. This offense is capable of great things. This defense is getting better as it goes. (Yeah, Palmer threw for 412 yards Sunday, but that can happen when a team gets that far behind.) My issue with the Falcons isn’t what they can do but in how often they do it. They played wall-to-wall in the signature overtime victory in New Orleans. They got away with a half-effort against San Francisco. They didn’t get away with it in Philadelphia.
To me, the game that still resonates was the opener in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger and still carried themselves as if they expected to invent some way to win, which they did in overtime. The Falcons messed around and managed not to score a touchdown. Yes, the Steelers can play some D, but still … no TDs for the offense of Turner and Gonzalez and Roddy White and Matt Ryan? Seriously?
What needs to happen over the bye week is that these Falcons look both without and within. Check around the NFC and they won’t find one team with more talent. Those touted most in preseason — Dallas, Minnesota, Green Bay and New Orleans — have all wobbled. The Falcons have climbed to 5-2 and have already played their most difficult road games. They’re not just playing to win the NFC South; they’re playing for the No. 1 seed.
And that’s the reason for the look within. The Falcons have to say, “We’re doing this.” Not: “We can do this.” They already know, or at least have reason to suspect, they can. The test now is simply to do. No more slack Sundays. No more sluggish starts with a blocked punt thrown in. Only big-time professional football from here on, the kind the Steelers and the Patriots play as a matter of course.
This doesn’t mean the Falcons can’t lose another game. They probably will. (Baltimore at the Dome on Thursday night — tough duty.) What it means is that the belief/expectation needs to grow within the complex at 4400 Falcon Parkway that this is now the home office of a fully expectant champion.
Mike Smith has a Super Bowl ring from his days as a Baltimore assistant. He should pass it around and let his men assess its size and importance. Because these Falcons could all be wearing such a ring very soon. Their sin would be in waiting too long to grasp what’s at stake. This team is good enough to be playing in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 6, 2011. It absolutely is.