Counting the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons are 24-11 since Jan. 3, 2010. That’s not bad. But the reason this winning team doesn’t yet occupy space on the NFL’s shelf of the elite is that, duh, it hasn’t won a playoff game since Jim Mora was a rookie coach, and also because it tends to spit the bit in prime time.
Of the Falcons’ six most recent night games, they’ve lost four. One exception was a victory over Jacksonville last December, and we affix an asterisk because it came on Thursday and was aired by the NFL Network, which not everybody gets. Of the five times in 2010/2011 the Falcons played on Saturday (NBC), Sunday (NBC again) or Monday (ESPN) nights, they’ve lost four.
They could have clinched the NFC South two nights after Christmas 2010, but they lost here to the Saints. Nineteen days later they were the marquee game of Saturday’s divisional playoff round, and they lost 48-21 to Green Bay. Last season the Falcons played two home Sunday-nighters in the span of four weeks, and they split: Beating the Eagles narrowly, losing to the Packers less narrowly. And then, come the holidays, they stunk out the Superdome on Monday night, losing to the Saints 45-16.
And here we are again: Another Monday night, another name-brand opponent. “It’ll be a full house,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said this week, and then he smiled. “I’m guessing everyone [holding a ticket] will remember it’s an 8:30 game.”
Well, yes. When Peyton Manning comes to town, you tend to note the date and time. Not-so-fun fact: When last Manning faced the Falcons at night, it was on Thanksgiving in the lost season of 2007. He threw three touchdown passes and the visiting Colts won 31-13. But that was with Bobby Petrino as coach and Joey Harrington as quarterback, and Falcon fortunes have since improved.
The Denver Broncos, Manning’s new team, are 1-0, having beaten the Steelers last Sunday night. The Falcons are 1-0, having routed Kansas City on the road. “It ought to be a good game,” said Smith, telling no lies, and even a coach who sweats the seeming bad games seemed to be feeling some extra oomph for this one.
Again, those two words: Peyton Manning. He might or might not be the greatest quarterback of his generation, but he’s the most frightening for a defensive coordinator. For the five seasons before he moved to Flowery Branch, Mike Smith was a defensive coordinator in Peyton Manning’s division. Twice a year, Smitty and his Jacksonville D had to try and outflank the quarterback who has rarely been outflanked.
Smith on Manning: “He’s the measuring stick for every quarterback of this era, especially with more teams throwing it all the time and going no-huddle. When you’re the defensive coordinator, it truly is a chess match. You get 40 seconds on the play clock, and [going against Manning] you still don’t know what’s coming at the end of it. With most guys, it’s a case of ‘either/or’ or ‘this, this or this.’ But he can go through the whole playbook.”
Smith mentioned measuring sticks: Manning and his new club offer a convenient one for the locals. The Falcons have committed to playing at a fuller tilt on offense and pressuring more on defense, but if your team doesn’t hog the ball and burn the clock your defense has to spend even more time trying to harness a Hall of Famer.
The Falcons could look to run a bit more against Denver than in Week 1 simply because the best way to defuse Manning is to have him stand on the sideline. Or the Falcons could decide to let it fly and we might wind up with a 42-38 game, and wouldn’t that be a boon for the Worldwide Leader? And wouldn’t it say something for the locals if they could win such a spectacle?
The Falcons need to win this game just to prove, both to the watching world and to themselves, that they can. They’re skilled at spearing minnows, but only one of last season’s 10 victories came against a team that qualified for the playoffs. Given repeated opportunities, the Falcons haven’t seized the day. (Or, more precisely, the night.) They’ve gotten tagged as a good team that’s not good enough, and the only way around that is to start beating up on the big boys. There’s none bigger than Peyton Manning.
By Mark Bradley