When a 13-3 season unravels in a 27-point home loss, we’re forced to ask: Which was real — four months of stout work or one outrageously inept playoff showing? Late Saturday night, coach Mike Smith said of his suddenly forlorn Falcons: “There’s a whole body of work we put out there. We can’t forget that.”
We can’t. Neither can we ignore what happened — and what didn’t happen — against Green Bay. And to answer the question just posed: Both the regular season and the 48-21 drubbing were real, but the latter was so comprehensive as to suggest this 13-3 team mightn’t have been 13-3 good.
The defense collapsed so comprehensively Saturday as to make it seem the Falcons played the entire game with two men in the penalty box. Their opponents averaged 309 yards in the regular season; the Packers amassed 333 yards on four consecutive touchdown drives that were epic in scope and precision.
Said Smith: “There were numerous opportunities to get the get the guy [quarterback Aaron Rodgers] on the ground,” but the Falcons proved incapable of sacking Rodgers or shadowing his many splendid receivers or doing anything that would have gotten them off the field before seven more points had been affixed to the scoreboard. It was a horrid showing and, for one of the few times over three seasons, Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder were clearly outfoxed.
But the Falcons’ offense was equally culpable, and here’s where the deeper concern lies. This is a unit of five Pro Bowlers and lots of high salaries, and it did, over the course of the regular season, score points. (The Falcons were fifth in the NFL in scoring.) It did not, however, function at a rarefied level. This offense was 15th in total yardage, 12th in rushing, 16th in passing. How can you have the NFC’s leading rusher in Michael Turner, its leading receiver in Roddy White, a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Ryan and, in orchestrator Mike Mularkey, an assistant just named coordinator of the year by Sporting News … and be mediocre?
The Falcons ran 1,097 plays over 16 games. Only one snap — a Turner run — gained more than 50 yards. The Falcons ranked third in time of possession, which means they were good at grinding, but they were incapable of the quick strike. Mularkey’s measured pace worked against the lesser teams, but against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and New Orleans (the second time) and now Green Bay the ground game was stuffed and Ryan was incapable of finding anyone deep. Because nobody could get deep.
In the harsh light of hindsight, it’s apparent the Falcons were both good and lucky in the climb to 13-3. They could have lost to the Saints in the Superdome and should have lost to San Francisco here; they needed inspired defensive plays at the end to hold off Cleveland and Tampa Bay (the first time), and they needed late-game lightning to overcome Baltimore and Green Bay and Tampa Bay (the second time). Granted, NFL success is a function of winning close games, but some of those games shouldn’t have been close.
Game No. 17 wasn’t close at all. The Falcons were trampled by the Packers in a way a No. 1 seed is never trampled, and afterward they were more confused than crestfallen. “I don’t know who that team was out there,” said Dunta Robinson, the high-priced cornerback. Then: “I think we have a pretty good defense. We just struggled in all areas.”
Back to our question: When you’re beaten in “all areas” in a game of such weight, how good are you? Said Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager: “This was unfortunately out of character, but I’m very encouraged about the competitiveness and growth of our young football players. We will continue to improve.”
That’s what you’d expect a savvy GM to say on the worst night of his stewardship. But when asked if this 27-point loss would cause him to rethink his grand scheme, Dimitroff was more pointed. “There will be,” he said, “no blowing up anything.”
And that’s the proper course. This team has come too far — from 4-12 to 13-3 in four seasons — to stop now. That said, some adjustments are warranted — and here, as threatened, are my five recommendations.
By Mark Bradley