It’s better to be 6-0 and picking nits than to be 0-6 and searching for bright spots. We’re agreed on that. But even the unbeaten Falcons conceded that Victory No. 6 was lovely only in its final score.
“We can’t make it hard on ourselves,” said defensive end John Abraham, whose irresistible presence kept this one close enough to win. “Take the stuff we did to ourselves out of the game and we win easy.”
Said Thomas DeCoud, the free safety: “We know the longer we stay undefeated, the better teams are going to be playing against us.”
For 3 4/5 quarters Sunday, the Falcons appeared to know no such thing. They’d been roundly outplayed by the 1-3 Raiders, and the only reason Oakland didn’t build an unassailable lead was that it couldn’t stop performing illegal acts. The visitors were flagged 12 times, many of the penalties holds on Abraham. The Raiders outgained the Falcons 474 yards to 286, but 110 penalty yards had a leveling effect.
Matt Ryan, who’d thrown three interceptions in five games, delivered three in the first two quarters. Matt Bryant, who hadn’t missed a field goal this season, pulled a 42-yard try. The Matts with the soundalike surnames essentially killed four of the Falcons’ first five possessions, which ended as follows: Ryan INT, Bryant missed FG, Ryan INT, Ryan TD pass, Ryan INT.
Against a better team on another day, that lousy start would have been enough to get the Falcons beat. That said, it’s unlikely the Falcons would have played so poorly against a better team. Players are human: When you’re 5-0 and the opponent is 1-3, it’s not the same as when Belichick and Brady occupy the other sideline.
The trouble with this performance is that it followed two others cut from similar checkered cloth. The Falcons needed a frantic last-minute drive to overhaul Carolina here and a fourth-quarter rally to subdue Washington there. And this given Sunday brought another halting start.
We move to the third quarter. The Falcons got a hilarious break when a Ryan pass thunked cornerback Joselio Hudson in the back of the helmet and was gathered in by a grateful Harry Douglas. That 20-yard gain could only spark a field goal, and Abraham’s sack/strip of Carson Palmer that yielded, after a Ray Edwards recovery/return, first-and-goal at the Oakland 2 didn’t generate a touchdown, either. The Falcons tied the game but could do no more, and suddenly it was inside the final three minutes and the Raiders were driving to take the lead.
Whereupon cornerback Asante Samuel, imported for such a moment, drew up a play (figuratively speaking) in the dirt. Strong safety William Moore had conveyed a coverage to defend against a three-step drop. When Samuel saw Palmer retreat deeper, he said to himself, “Forget it” — actually, he used a different word — and decided to “do my little thing.” Samuel sliced in front of Denarius Moore and took the interception 79 yards to score. Not that those 79 yards were without peril.
At the Falcons’ 30, Samuel pointed in celebration. Next thing he knew, Palmer was bearing down on him. “I’ve got to get a little shine,” Samuel said, speaking of the gesticulation. “But I got a little scared. I thought he was going to catch me.”
Staving off major embarrassment, Samuel dodged Palmer and scored. Ballgame, right? Not quite. The Raiders moved to the Atlanta 5 inside the final minute, and here Samuel made another huge, albeit inadvertent, play. He got hurt.
Because it was inside the final two minutes, the Falcons were docked a timeout as Samuel was helped to the bench. (”I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “My ankle hurt and I was tired.”) But the clock stopped at moment Oakland wanted it to keep running, and the result was that the two Matts were left with 40 seconds after the Raiders’ tying touchdown. Piece of cake.
If there’s such a thing as a run-of-the-mill drive that leads to a 55-yard game-winning field goal at 0:01, this was it. Ryan completed five passes and Bryant swung his foot and the Falcons won 23-20 and all was right in Birdland. Except that it kind of wasn’t.
Said Ryan: “I’m always of the opinion we need to strive to play our best. I don’t think we’ve done that the past couple of weeks.”
Said Mike Smith, the coach: “We can play better. Everyone in this (locker) room knows it.”
Yes, it sounds a bit cruel, carping about the first 6-0 start this franchise has ever known. But that’s the trouble with rising so far: If you fall from such a great height, you make a bigger splat. In the season’s first three weeks, the Falcons played very well. In Weeks 4-6, they played well enough to win. Yes, there’s a difference.
For further reading: Here are three other observations regarding the Falcons’ 23-20 victory over Oakland.
By Mark Bradley