The Falcons’ season began and ended against the teams that will meet in Super Bowl XLV. In between there were 13 victories, but the failure to reach the ice-encrusted Dallas area — guess we’re not the only big-event-hosting city that can suffer lousy weather, huh? — has forced us to ask: Why the Packers and Steelers but not the Birds?
Well, both Green Bay and Pittsburgh play better defense, though the Falcons’ D looked OK until the night of Jan. 15. And Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger rank among the NFL’s half-dozen best quarterbacks, whereas Matt Ryan would be in the top 10. But a talent deficit isn’t what barred the Falcons from the game so big we needed the snooty Romans to number it.
When you send nine men to the Pro Bowl, you’re talented enough. In those 13 victories we saw the Falcons’ best players make winning plays. Indeed, seven of those 13 games were won by seven or fewer points. Note, however, that the six games the Falcons won big all came against teams that finished under .500. For all their winning, the Falcons never once played such a complete game against a brand-name opponent that you stood back and said, “Whoa — these guys are good.”
The Falcons were good, but it was never clear if they believed they belonged among the upper crust. (Believing isn’t the same as wishing and hoping.) Go back to the opener in Pittsburgh: The Steelers were coming off a non-playoff season and were without the suspended Roethlisberger, but they played with a fury. They played to prove they could win behind any quarterback. They played to prove they were still the Steelers.
The Falcons took the ball with 1:45 remaining in regulation and the game tied, but their first play became one of those hurtling Troy Polamalu interceptions. That should have been it, but Jeff Reed missed his field goal. Much relieved, the Falcons won the coin toss for overtime. They managed one first down. The Steelers handed the ball to Rashard Mendenhall and went home winners. Put simply, the Steelers were not going to lose that day no matter how many times they had to win it.
We saw the Saints similarly refuse to surrender here two nights after Christmas. In October we saw the Eagles, working behind backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, dominate from the kickoff. And finally we saw the Packers enter the Georgia Dome and score 42 points in 25 minutes.
Yes, the Falcons beat the Saints in the Superdome in September, and yes, they had beaten Baltimore and Green Bay here in November. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t compete against the big boys. But you could see in those four losses a palpable difference: The teams that beat the Falcons played faster and hit harder. They weren’t any more gifted, but they acted — apologies for the cliche — as if they wanted it more.
Which sounds silly. Why would a team good enough to win 13 games not want to win a 14th, a 15th, a 16th? But the commodity still lacking in the Falcons is the veteran of championship portfolio — in the NBA, that player is known as “a James Posey,” in reference to the sub who has won with Miami and Boston — who can show his mates how it’s done.
Asked if he feels compelled to add such a player, general manager Thomas Dimitroff responded via e-mail: “It would be nice to have [that] as an influence, but [it] won’t be the driving force if we feel the talent is better with somebody who hasn’t won one.”
Then this: “It surely is on our mind.”
It needs to be more than a thought; it needs to be the priority. Of those nine Pro Bowlers, not one has a Super Bowl ring. (Mike Smith does, but a coach can only say so much.) It’s time for the Falcons to start carrying themselves like the champions they can be. It’s time for Dimitroff to find his James Posey.
OK, and now you’re asking: Who’s out there? Well, the Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour is scheduled to become a free agent. (This assumes the coming lockout ever ends.) He played at Georgia. He won three Super Bowls as a Patriot. He’d do.
By Mark Bradley