They’re in the playoffs, and they’re as close to having the No. 1 seed throughout the NFC bracket as you can get without clinching. They’ve got two games to go, both of them here. Win once more — here we note that the Falcons meet the NFL’s worst team, Carolina, in the regular-season finale Jan. 2 — and they won’t play anywhere but here until February.
And that’s the way it ought to be. If you’re looking for the NFL’s best overall team, it’s Atlanta. (And if you’re wondering when last we could say that about the Falcons with any conviction, the answer would be, “Um … never.”)
The Patriots have a fabulous offense, but their defense entered the weekend as the league’s fifth-worst. Maybe Tom Brady is good enough to override that failing, but at some point a championship team has to stop somebody. (Doesn’t it?) The Ravens are stout, but the Falcons have beaten them. The Falcons lost to the Steelers, but that was before the local team figured out how good it could be.The Jets are more a TV show than a Super Bowl winner. Those are the only AFC teams worth mentioning.
As for the NFC: The Giants just blew a 21-point lead in a prove-it game, meaning they proved they don’t belong among the elite. The Saints lost in Baltimore on Sunday, solidifying the season-long belief that the reigning champs are indeed last year’s team. The Bears lead the NFC North but don’t seem a threat. But there’s one team that does.
Given the Falcons’ run of last-gasp victories and their absence of serious injuries, this has been a charmed season for the franchise that, 45 years on, hasn’t known many. These Falcons don’t dazzle you with footwork; they just hammer you with basics. They’re not rattled by an opponent’s quick start. They’re not rattled by anything. That said …
The Philadelphia Eagles are coming fast. (Emphasis on “fast.” Those guys can really run.) They weren’t supposed to lead the NFC East with two games to go — back in September, Dallas and the Giants were the touted teams — and however the Eagles fared was supposed to hinge on new quarterback Kevin Kolb.
Two weeks into the season, the Eagles had a new new quarterback. Andy Reid, the low-key coach, chose to elevate Michael Vick to No. 1 after saying repeatedly he would not. (Kolb had gotten hurt in the opener.) The Eagles made the announcement via a mass text message at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night. At a Wednesday briefing Reid faced an enraged Philly media, which demanded to know why it should ever trust him again.
Today the Eagles are at worst the NFC’s second-best team, and they’ve already beaten the Falcons on a day when Vick didn’t play. (Question for a rainy afternoon: Are the Eagles deeper at quarterback than the Phillies are in starting pitching?) The Eagles are having a season kissed by the angels, same as the Falcons. You know something strange is happening when, as happened Sunday, a Vick-fueled Philly rally enables his former team to clinch a playoff berth.
So now we ask: Is it possible to have two teams of destiny? If so, which one wins?
Speaking last week, the former Falcon great Jessie Tuggle said: “I’m a little biased, but I think [the Falcons are] the best team in the NFC.”
Then, after a pause: “But Philadelphia could push them.”
Think about it. Jan. 23, 2011: The Georgia Dome stages its first conference championship game, and who should be the opposing quarterback? Only the guy who used to pack the place.
Me, I’m thinking that would be the toughest ticket in the history of Atlanta sports, above even Muhammad Ali’s comeback fight against Jerry Quarry in October 1970. And I’m also hoping it doesn’t happen for a selfish reason: The profession I’ve chosen would be rendered null and void, at least for that week.
If ever a story could write itself, it’d be this: Michael Vick returns to Atlanta, a Super Bowl on the line. Nuff said.