Maybe there’s no such thing as a Week 6 Must Win in the NFL, but this was taking on that look. After three quarters the touted-for-the-Super-Bowl Falcons trailed Carolina, which had won three of its past 19 games, and seemed transfixed by the rookie Cam Newton.
“We really needed to step up the intensity,” said defensive lineman Corey Peters, whose one-handed snatch of a Newton screen finally broke the Camster’s spell. “He was able to stand back there way too long.”
In those moments when Newton was standing and delivering, it seemed appropriate to run some sums. Lose this and the Falcons would be 2-4. Lose in Detroit next week, 2-5. Lose to Indianapolis after the bye … that won’t happen, so 3-5. Lose to New Orleans here on Nov. 10 and it’s 3-6 and desperation time. And besides: If you can’t beat Carolina at your place, who can you beat?
Moot point now. The Falcons played their best fourth quarter of 2011 — admittedly, that’s not the stiffest of competitions — and won by two touchdowns. “We showed good resolve today,” Matt Ryan said, but even Our Matty of the Platitude wouldn’t dare to use the word “great. This was a workmanlike victory, nothing more.
The Falcons didn’t take out any frustrations on one of the NFL’s worst aggregations. They spent most of the day getting more frustrated. After Carolina converted a particularly egregious third down — the Panthers were 8-of-10 on those through three quarters — head coach Mike Smith could be seen shouting and waving his playcard in the general direction of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. (It’s possible Smitty could have been yelling at someone in the booth, but it seemed apparent he wasn’t reciting, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”)
Only in the fourth quarter did VanGorder begin to urn … uh, earn … his salary, and even the much-maligned offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey — we should change his nickname from Double M to Quadruple M — did the business. The Falcons ran Michael Turner at Carolina, and this bit of Mularkey was dipped in acuity: Carolina entered with the league’s sixth-worst run defense.
Smith spoke afterward of getting “back on track” and “finding our DNA [meaning the running game],” but we can’t know if this was the usual happy talk or an actual corner turned. This was, after all, Carolina.
“Turn on the film,” said center Todd McClure, the Falcon least apt to blow smoke. “They’re not the Carolina of last year. That’s a team that’s going to be good down the road.”
And this game? After those three indifferent quarters, hadn’t it mushroomed into something bigger than advertised? “I totally agree,” McClure said. “For the mental state of this team — this could have put us behind the 8-ball. But this type of win could give us momentum.”
It could, yeah. After six games, however, the 2011 Falcons have managed few gains and consolidated none. Their week-by-week worksheet: Loss, win, loss, win, loss, win.
About that DNA: Turner rushed for 139 yards on 27 carries, but it’s unclear how that might square with the Falcons’ vision of becoming more “explosive.” Julio Jones didn’t play due to an injury. Roddy White caught two passes for 21 yards, Tony Gonzalez three for 29. Only Ryan’s terrific throw-while-getting-rocked to Harry Douglas inside the final 10 minutes could be considered a vital downfield connection, and it spawned the go-ahead touchdown.
In sum, the Falcons have spent six weeks making us wonder just how good they are. They haven’t beaten anybody who’s above .500. They entered Sunday’s game 19th in total offense and 24th in total defense. (And got outgained by 43 yards by Carolina.) We’ve seen little to make us believe this is a playoff team, let alone a champion-in-waiting.
Maybe this fourth quarter was the beginning of the road to eminence. “The key word for this week was ‘finish’,” said cornerback Brent Grimes, “and I think we got that accomplished.”
The finish was fine. The Falcons won, which always beats losing. On this given Sunday, they got a little better. They still haven’t gotten well.
By Mark Bradley