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