A few words of preemptive self-defense: I picked the Falcons to go 12-4 and win the NFC South; I undershot slightly on the first part — they finished the regular season 13-3 — but was correct on the latter. I also picked them to play for the NFC title, which I think will happen. I’m just not sure they’ll win the NFC title.
The loss to New Orleans bothered me a lot. Super Bowl appearances are often prefaced by big-time December victories, and on Dec. 27 the Falcons flubbed their chance. Many among you will say, “What’s the big deal? They’d already beaten the Saints once and only lost by a field goal the second time.” The big deal, I submit, was in the meek way the Falcons performed.
The Saints controlled the game. They outgained the home side by 153 yards and had nine more first downs. (Factoid: Four of Atlanta’s 14 first downs came on penalties.) By the time the Falcons made their second first down, they trailed 10-0. They allowed a visitor to enter the Georgia Dome and steal a march.
The twin pillars of general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s grand design — and it has been grand — are “urgency” and “consistency.” The Falcons were the essence of neither that night. They rushed for 75 yards, and 26 came off Matt Ryan scrambles. They controlled neither line of scrimmage. They weren’t the hitter but the hittee.
In hindsight it has become locally fashionable to say the game meant more to the Saints than to the Falcons, who six days later would convert a second chance to clinch the division against Carolina, but that’s just wrong. The Falcons saw that Monday night game as the capstone of a shining regular season. Dimitroff himself was so antsy he left his Buckhead home that day to sequester himself in the team’s downtown hotel and apply his managerial game face.
True, the Falcons did grab a late lead on Chauncey Davis’ interception of Drew Brees’ silly flip — the Saints made two turnovers that night, same as the Falcons — but even that catalytic moment proved a fizzle. A subsequent interception by John Abraham brought the chance to clinch the game, and the Falcons managed only one first down. After New Orleans drove 90 yards to retake the lead, the Falcons gained 20 yards on a Ryan scramble but wound up punting inside the final three minutes. They wouldn’t run another play.
And now you’re saying, “Lighten up, Bradley. That night was an anomaly.” Er, no. The Falcons sustained similar losses in Pittsburgh on Opening Day and in Philadelphia in October. Both times the Falcons’ running game got stuffed, and both times the Falcons lost. Yes, they lost only three times and all three were against top-shelf competition, but that’s the point: In the playoffs, you’re only going to face the upper crust. (Seattle excluded, and the Seahawks won’t be around long.)
My question about the Falcons all season hasn’t been their talent — on paper, this is a Super Bowl team — but their sense of self. Even after 13-3, I’m not sure the Falcons view the Lombardi Trophy as their manifest destiny, and the Gatorade baptisms of coach Mike Smith and owner Arthur Blank on Sunday only deepened my doubt. Can you imagine the Patriots giving Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft the same treatment after any regular-season victory, let alone one over the NFL’s worst team?
The Falcons are the NFC’s No. 1 seed on merit. They’ve been, in the main, consistent and attentive to detail. They’ve won games they might easily have lost. But after each of their losses I came away thinking they hadn’t just been outplayed but outfought. The first two were early and on the road, but the third was late and here. And that, frankly, was distressing.
Seven Falcons were named to the Pro Bowl, which tells us all we need to know about this team’s potential. That not one of the seven has played in a Super Bowl is the great imponderable. Full credit to these Birds for putting themselves in Position A to make a run to Arlington, Texas, but a different brand of football is now required. It’s time for even more urgency. It’s time, ahem, to Rise Up.
By Mark Bradley