In prime time, the suddenly surging Falcons show their class

Sean Weatherspoon's team had a bad Thursday night. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Sean Weatherspoon's team had a ball Thursday night. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Here’s where we haul out the wide-angle lens. Here’s where we recall those prime-time Falcons games that went the other way.

Like the one in 1984 that left O.J. Simpson, then an ABC analyst, chucking over the local team’s capacity to throw three-yard passes when trailing by three touchdowns. Or the 36-0 loss in 2003 that led Arthur Blank to write a letter of apology to the network. Or the 20-point home loss to New Orleans on Dec. 10, 2007 — the same day Michael Vick was sentenced to prison, the night before Bobby Petrino left to go call some Hogs in Arkansas.

And here’s where we step back and say: The woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars we saw Thursday night? Those used to be the Falcons.

Maybe the 2011 Birds haven’t been quite the team we hoped they’d be, but let’s get real: This club is 9-5 and headed for the playoffs. The Falcons have had chances to spit the bit and have declined every time. They’ve given themselves a postseason chance, and that’s all any team — even mighty Green Bay — can hope to do before the playoffs commence.

There was a time — heck, it was two years ago — that we Atlantans celebrated the Falcons finally managing consecutive winning seasons. On Thursday they clinched a fourth in a row, and none of us cared. Because we’ve been conditioned by Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith and Matt Ryan and Roddy White and Michael Turner to expect bigger and better.

“In-house, our expectations are much higher than just a winning season,” Smith said. “When you’re where you want to be as a team, winning seasons are expected.”

Raging mediocrity was left in the dust the January after Vick went to prison and Petrino split for the Ozarks. A franchise that looked to be three years from even a sniff of anything sweet hired a smart general manager and an unadorned coach and drafted a quarterback, and most everything since has been an unflagging march toward excellence. Tony Gonzalez came aboard. Julio Jones was taken after a bold managerial move upward. We might quibble with what the Falcons have become, but we cannot deny that they’ve become something worth watching.

On Thursday night we were treated to most of it. To Turner busting up the gut. To Jones splitting defenders to score. To White running the precise patterns that made him a 1,000-yard receiver. To Ryan managing the game and making the requisite throws. To John Abraham sacking the Jaguar quarterback so often that the name “Gabbert” got imprinted on the Dome turf. To Sean Weatherspoon doing his search-and-destroy routine. To a good-looking NFL club, in sum, treating its opponent with abject disdain.

It was 7-0 after four minutes, 17-0 after 17, 27-0 at the half, 34-0 in the first minute of the third quarter, 41-14 when it ended. No, Jacksonville isn’t much of a test, but that’s the point. The Falcons are no longer just another team. They’re one of the league’s best, and they’re getting better as they go.

We cannot know just yet, but it could be that the comeback in Charlotte five days ago marked a Rubicon. Down 23-7, the Falcons scored the final 24 points. Then they scored the first 41 against Jacksonville. For those without a handy abacus, that marked 65 consecutive Atlanta points. When last have we beheld a Falcons team capable of that? In the Super Bowl season of 1998? In the great-leap-forward year of 1980? Ever?

You mightn’t pick this team to win the Super Bowl, but no opponent will want to see the Falcons across the line of scrimmage. There’s enough talent here to reach the game so big we had to let the Romans number it, more talent than at any time in franchise history. (Yes, that includes 1998.) The Falcons’ next game will be in New Orleans the night after Christmas, and there’s no cause to believe it’s unwinnable.

At peak capacity, this team can beat anybody. Trouble is, the Falcons didn’t function at peak capacity against the Packers in October or the Saints in November … or against anybody until Thursday. Players and coaches kept saying, “We haven’t yet played a complete game,” but on this night they came pretty close. (There was that blocked punt, though.)

We’ve been wondering since September how these Falcons in full flight would look. We’re getting an idea. The offense isn’t as good as Green Bay’s or New England’s and the defense isn’t as unyielding as Houston’s, but not many teams have a better combination of the two. Not many teams can match 53-man rosters with this.

There was a time when we in this city had cause to dread every prime-time slot the Falcons were handed, and mercifully they weren’t given many. That time is gone. These Birds aren’t clowns. These Birds are class.

By Mark Bradley

257 comments Add your comment

mmgtfan

December 15th, 2011
11:07 pm

Double First!

Beoti

December 15th, 2011
11:16 pm

Checkin’ out early Mark?

Mark Bradley

December 15th, 2011
11:20 pm

Writing, Beoti. Wireless malfunction has wrought a smidgeon of havoc.

Steve

December 15th, 2011
11:24 pm

replace your xx with 41 there Mark other than that great column and I hope you don’t mind us being proofreaders for you

ijonathan

December 15th, 2011
11:24 pm

Uh Mark, you forgot to fill in one of your “XX” placeholders.

JSS

December 15th, 2011
11:24 pm

Yuck it up, was this or the Cardinals game last year more misleading in terms of perception?

JDK

December 15th, 2011
11:26 pm

Mark, be sure to replace the “xx” placeholder you put in there a few paragraphs – I believe it should be ‘41′.

Norm Van Brocklin

December 15th, 2011
11:26 pm

Mark, did i ever challenge you to stack chairs?

ijonathan

December 15th, 2011
11:26 pm

Give it a rest JSS, you’re bordering on tired act/one trick pony status.

Norm Van Brocklin

December 15th, 2011
11:27 pm

If i had had a better defensive coordinator than Marion Campbell, I’d have been a shoe in for the Hall

Billy Martin

December 15th, 2011
11:28 pm

Hey guy! I don’t feel like drivin’.. do you mind…

Bo and Luke Duke

December 15th, 2011
11:29 pm

hey man! where IS Boss Hog?

all for one.....

December 15th, 2011
11:29 pm

What do Falcons do? Falcons Rise Up!

Boss Hog

December 15th, 2011
11:31 pm

I will neva reyest unitl i hayve those Dooke boys in jayal. So help me Gawd!

JSS

December 15th, 2011
11:32 pm

YOu give it a rest, that was a bad football team… No one is demeaning the effort… Here’s a question sir, what happened the week after they plastered the Cards? They had a game where sans missed FG they would have started -2-2… They let bad teams color the water…

dawgnation

December 15th, 2011
11:33 pm

mark, I hope you right. But, calling them one of the league’s best is kind of premature, isn’t it? Maybe the momentum will continue. But I guess we’ll see after we go to the big easy.

Mr Charlie

December 15th, 2011
11:34 pm

You mean this is a bad Defense? Did’nt this D hold Joe Flacko to 0 yards in the 1st half?

Indy falcon

December 15th, 2011
11:34 pm

I like the rythem and flow were seeing on both sides of the ball. Ive been real skeptical throughout the season and still i have a little uneasiness,but tonight eased it a little. Lets see if we can keep building this momentum right into the playoffs. Could we actually be building to that kind of peak to win a championship? I hope so….

airport falcon

December 15th, 2011
11:34 pm

as long as we play the Jaguars or Colts, we are world beaters. When we beat the Packers or Saints (twice) then I will beleive.

ohhhhYEAH

December 15th, 2011
11:34 pm

well JSS, guess what….even Green Bay has to play Minnesota, and Oakland. EVERYONE plays bad teams. yet, when Aaron Rodgers goes off and has a game against these teams, your argument holds no water. Not that im Saying Ryan is as good as Rodgers, but i AM saying that every team has to play the 4-9’s of the league, and its what you do against them that matters. Its funny how when the Packers blow out the Vikings its “ohhhh Aaron Rodgers is the greatest QB of all time past or present, theres no stopping this team….did you see what they did to the VIKINGS…” i mean gimme a break, you cant have it both ways.

JSS

December 15th, 2011
11:34 pm

I would say Crown Royal time had broken out… But it is an AJC… The PBR must be on sale?

Mr Charlie

December 15th, 2011
11:35 pm

It is just one game, 9-5, same old falcons.

tjhook

December 15th, 2011
11:35 pm

For your next column you should discuss the Falcons’ road status under Smith and Ryan ( including point totals). The team will at least have one playoff game on the road so let’s see how ready the coaching staff is for unfamiliar stadiums.

doggoneit

December 15th, 2011
11:35 pm

who was the mvp! THe Fans!

Next

December 15th, 2011
11:36 pm

Jax obv didn’t come to play. You write this crap and watch. They will go stink up the superdome cause that is what falcons teams do. Just watch. NO will still win what will be a meaningless game for them by 2 scores.

Mora less Petrino

December 15th, 2011
11:37 pm

No NFL Network on my cable provider, but it sounded good! That awful loss at Tampa is going to cost the Birds the division. No reason the Falcons can’t win at N.O. The Saints are very beatable.

JSS

December 15th, 2011
11:38 pm

Oh… The Packers have never played well in the Metrodome… So I just know what’s going to happen when they meet there… It is like people betting against the line when the Falcons and Bucs meet in Tampa, they may win, they rarely ever cover…

stizz

December 15th, 2011
11:38 pm

JSS is a jackass.

Fred Macmurray

December 15th, 2011
11:39 pm

JSS,, isnt it bedtime at the “Home”,, give it a rest little fella..

ls1z28chris

December 15th, 2011
11:40 pm

Wow. A well reasoned, sober, pensive, and realistic take on the Falcons. I didn’t think anyone at the AJC had it in them.

ohhhhYEAH

December 15th, 2011
11:40 pm

My point is, you cant say “they did this to a 4-9 team” when atlanta beats a bad team, but then turn right around and praise the freakin packers or the saints when they clown a 4-9 team. it makes no sense at all.

JSS

December 15th, 2011
11:40 pm

Mora. it was on the Online game plan unless you in the blackout zone?

P B Orr

December 15th, 2011
11:40 pm

That was fun. Ryan had one pick 6 though – to White :)

Fred Macmurray

December 15th, 2011
11:41 pm

And whats wrong with PBR,, you sir have no taste.

ijonathan

December 15th, 2011
11:41 pm

That’s it JSS, pile on with the snarky condescension.

Just so I have it straight, when the Falcons “struggle” with a lower tier team, they are criticized for not going pedal to the metal. But when they blow doors, it doesn’t matter because they are facing a bad team?

But as noted above, if it was Green Bay or Philly, you’d be falling all over yourself to praise the amazing quarterbacking talents of Rodgers and Vick in demolishing those teams.

P B Orr

December 15th, 2011
11:41 pm

5 bucks says the best 2-11 team in history, the Vikings, beat the Saints.

JSS

December 15th, 2011
11:42 pm

At Uncle Charlie’s nephew…
Not unless you and Michael Jackson have called it a night at Forest lawn?

ohhhhYEAH

December 15th, 2011
11:43 pm

PROrr, i dont think we are that lucky! although….there were the Rams….. :)

where are the real fans

December 15th, 2011
11:43 pm

They came out and played like they should have all year. Better late then never.

extremus

December 15th, 2011
11:43 pm

The game in New Orleans a week from Monday will be a litmus test to help determine whether the Falcons’ offensive efficiency the past 6 quarters (well, minus the backups in this game) is the real thing at last or yet another mirage. A win would do much to ease the pain of that overtime loss earlier this year…and yes, the Falcons are capable, but consistency will determine whether it happens. I expect a very tight, physical contest between the Falcons and Saints regardless of the victor; they’re much more evenly matched than either team’s fanbase would care to admit.

A lot can happen in six quarters; after halftime this past Sunday I was fully prepared to concede the season, and it appeared the Falcons had as well. Now maybe…just MAYBE…we are about to see this team be as advertised coming into the 2011 season. But I have to confess that I’ll be at best guardedly optimistic until I see them hoisting a Lombardi Trophy; we Atlanta fans have seen bitter disappointment far too many times to get too over-excited by now.

DONT HAVE ANOTHER HEARTATTACK M.SMITH

December 15th, 2011
11:44 pm

BRING ON DA AINTS! WHO DAT? WE DATL

Ryan

December 15th, 2011
11:44 pm

Saints lose to the Vikings on Sunday. Right it down.

Fred Macmurray

December 15th, 2011
11:44 pm

JSS is a Jackass,, but he’s our Jackass,, so go easy on him,,

P B Orr

December 15th, 2011
11:44 pm

Scary thought – the Eagles can win their division because they have tiebreakers over both the Giants and Girls. 5 seed will go to Philly. A zoo I don’t want to visit.

truth

December 15th, 2011
11:44 pm

Saints will lose to the vikings.

Michael M.

December 15th, 2011
11:45 pm

The Saints are in a world of trouble, say what you will, say what you want but this Falcon Team hasn’t reached its peak yet !

Brian

December 15th, 2011
11:45 pm

Hey Mark, it was 27-0 at the half and 34-0 in the first minute of the 2nd half.

falconsrus

December 15th, 2011
11:45 pm

On to the big easy to wreak a few smidgeons of havoc rise up swoop down swoop all around

Boss Hog

December 15th, 2011
11:46 pm

truth

December 15th, 2011
11:46 pm

Saints have a habit of losing to bad teams.