These are the 2011 Atlanta Falcons: Ahead 17-0 at the half, they turn a punt into an off-the-hip turnover and a fourth-and-13 into a galling Minnesota touchdown and, quicker than you can say “Percy Harvin is really fast,” a game that should have been locked away is in danger of becoming the worst loss of Mike Smith’s four seasons.
These are also the 2011 Atlanta Falcons: Needing to catch the really fast Percy Harvin to stave off a 107-yard touchdown on a kickoff return, Christopher Owens somehow does. The Minnesota touchdown goes forever unscored, and the Falcons win by 10 and slide into the sixth spot in the NFC playoff grid, which means this team would qualify if the postseason began today.
In sum, these are the 2011 Atlanta Falcons: Shaky enough to make you think they’ll never go anywhere but stout enough to make you reconsider.
Is this team as good as I thought it would be? Through 11 games, no. But parts of those 11 games have been promising enough to make me think — and I’ll concede I might be in the minority — that these Falcons could get hot enough to win a few games in January. Which means I’m going more on faith than on evidence, which is a risky proposition. That said, the Falcons don’t blanch at the concept of risk.
“We played through some ebbs and flows,” said coach Mike Smith, understating hugely. “We showed our composure.”
Well, no and yes. The Falcons turned a mismatch — going with a rookie quarterback and without Adrian Peterson, Minnesota entered 2-8 and managed 93 yards and zero points in the first 33 minutes — into a hairbreadth thing. They do this often. (See the halting victories over Seattle, Carolina and Tennessee for further proof.) And what, linebacker Curtis Lofton was asked, does that say about this team?
“We win,” Lofton said. “We don’t blow teams out, but we win.”
The NFL isn’t the BCS. There are no voters or computers to sway. You play a season and you tote up wins and losses, and if you’ve got enough of the former you keep playing. As long as you keep playing, you’ve got a shot. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals were 9-7 but came within one Pittsburgh drive of being Super Bowl champs. The 2010 Green Bay Packers were 10-6 and the NFC’s sixth seed, and they won it all. (For the record, the Smith-coached Falcons were eliminated by both.)
Said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, whose fourth-and-goal stop of Toby Gerhart subdued the Vikings at last: “We’ve got to work on [putting opponents away]. But it’s tough on Sundays.”
Said Lofton: “We’re not playing consecutive football — the whole team playing a complete game. We haven’t hit our peak yet.”
In those frantic moments when Harvin appeared bound for the touchdown that would bring the Vikings within three points again, it was possible to wonder if, far from scaling a peak, the Falcons were about to plunge into an abyss. But the moment passed. Owens kept chugging — “I just didn’t give up on the play,” he said — and hauled down the guy who might be the NFL’s fastest.
Said Smith: “You can overcome some of your mistakes by hustling.”
Yes, it’s a maddening team to watch, but which would you rather be: A maddening 7-4 or a dead-in-the-water 4-7? (Like Tampa Bay, say.) And lost in that 7-4 is that these Falcons were 2-3 after being outclassed at home by Green Bay; they’ve since won five of six. They’ve cinched up the chinstraps and given themselves a chance.
Said center Todd McClure: “We have gotten better the last five or six weeks. But we still haven’t played a complete game.”
And maybe they never will. Maybe that will be the epitaph of the 2011 Atlanta Falcons: “They were good enough but not consistent enough.” But you know what the 2010 Packers were through 11 games? After a loss on the final Sunday of November in the Georgia Dome, they were 7-4.
If we fault the Falcons for even letting Minnesota have a sniff at victory — and we can and should — we must also ask this: Can we dismiss the result in a result-oriented business? They mightn’t be the prettiest winners, but they do win.
By Mark Bradley