Flowery Branch – The NFL schedule has been kind to the Falcons. They’re 6-0, and that flying start leaves the Falcons all but certain to make the playoffs. That this is a good team is beyond debate: Lousy teams don’t stay unbeaten deep into October. At issue now: Just how good is good?
Here’s where the scheduler performs another valuable service. The first six games were testing without being taxing, and the Falcons aced the exam. But now, having beaten no team that’s above .500, they’re in need of sterner tests. Bang on cue, here are their next four games: At Philadelphia, Dallas here, at New Orleans, Arizona here.
Technically, only one of those teams has a winning record. (And that’s Arizona, the one you’d least expect.) But the Falcons’ next three opponents are Brand Names, and two of those three games will staged on the road. After three narrow victories, it became possible to carp over the Falcons’ capacity to play down to the opposition. That won’t continue, simply because the level of opposition is set to rise. If the Falcons don’t start playing up, they’ll start losing.
“We’re 6-0, but we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” said Todd McClure, the center. “We’ve got 10 games left, and the NFL is about peaking at the right time.”
The Falcons have bitter reason to know, given that they’ve been beaten in their first playoff game the past two seasons by teams with lesser records that wound up winning the Super Bowl. The 2010 Packers started 3-3 and were only 8-6 with two weeks remaining in the regular season; the 2011 Giants were 6-6 with a month to go. Moral of story: Nobody wins the Lombardi Trophy before Halloween.
That said, being 6-0 has enabled the Falcons to believe in themselves and their new coordinators, which is never a bad thing. Asked Wednesday if he considers this the NFL’s best team, free safety Thomas DeCoud said: “We haven’t shown that we are. We haven’t played our best game. But when we put that game together, it will be evident (that this team is indeed the best). To answer the question: Yes, but it has yet to be proven.”
Someone mentioned that the Falcons’ stats — they’re 13th in total offense, 22nd in total defense – aren’t suggestive of greatness. Said DeCoud: “It’s not how the stat line looks. The other team could rush for 200 yards but you’ll force a fumble and take it to the house. Games come down to five or six plays.”
To date, the Falcons have made all the plays of decision. But even good teams need to be given some indication of their true worth. If the Falcons win three of the next four, they’ll have ample reason to consider themselves the class of the league. If they lose a couple of games, Mike Smith and his assistants will have been handed a batch of teaching tools, which can, in the long run, be more valuable than locking down the home-field advantage.
We flash back to 2010: The Falcons were 13-3 and had beaten some good teams (New Orleans, Green Bay, Baltimore) en route, but a home loss to the Saints two nights after Christmas hinted that the NFC’s No. 1 seed-to-be wasn’t quite ready for its close-up. Sure enough, the wild-card Packers rolled into the Dome in January and exited 48-21 winners. Alas, the teaching tool arrived too late.
These Falcons are in a splendid spot. They’ve started so well they can absorb a loss or two and still win the NFC South breezing, and the road to 6-0 hasn’t been so filled with wonders as to make us wonder if such a run can be sustained.
McClure was likewise asked if the Falcons should be considered the NFL’s best. “I do,” he said. “Right now, I really do. I think everyone in this locker room does.”
Media consensus holds that the Falcons haven’t played as well as their record suggests. With the schedule about to grow teeth, nobody will be able to make that argument if this team keeps winning. Which would leave McClure … sad?
Yep. “I hope we kind of keep everything under the radar,” he said. “I’d rather be the team everybody is talking about in February.”
By Mark Bradley