Technically they didn’t play against one another — it would have been amusing if they had, and the score through three quarters couldn’t have been much lower — but Sunday’s game was a chance for the Falcons’ defense to measure itself alongside one of the best. The Dallas Cowboys arrived with a D ranked fourth in the 32-team NFL. The Falcons began the night rated 20th in total defense, although that status should have carried an asterisk. As in:
* “We may be No. 20, but we’ve lost fewer games than any of those units ahead of us.”
It must also be noted that Rob Ryan, son of Buddy and brother of Rex, coordinates the Dallas defense, and he inherited the familial gift of gab. He told Dallas reporters: “We’ve got to win this week, and we know it, and we’re going to.” That statement got much national mileage — anything a Ryan says is guaranteed to go coast-to-coast — and maybe it served to motivate the opposing defenders. Because this game became more Alabama-LSU than Oregon-USC.
The first-half numbers were eerie in their symmetry. The Falcons gained 178 yards and scored six points; Dallas had 182 yards and scored six points. (Grown-man football, this was.) Neither team turned it over. Each kicked two field goals. Each missed one.
Rankings notwithstanding, this didn’t seem a mismatch at all. It was instead an extended round of arm-wrestling between men of massive biceps and will. The Falcons had an awful time trying to block outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, but everybody does. For their part, the Falcon defenders missed some tackles — we can assume the absence of the injured Sean Weatherspoon made a spot of difference — but they bowed up when the Cowboys drew within sight of the goal line.
The third quarter opened with Dallas seeking to pound the middle, which made sense: The Falcons ranked 26th in run defense, and tackle Peria Jerry, considered an essential run-stopper, had been lost in the first half to another knee injury. Three Cowboy rushes gained 39 yards, but Akeem Dent stopped Felix Jones after a 3-yard gain on first down at the Atlanta 47, and that forced Tony Romo into throwing mode. An incompletion was followed by a Jonathan Babineaux sack, and a game as tight as a tick began to swing toward the Falcons.
Late in the third quarter Michael Turner, who’d gained 16 yards on his first 10 carries, burst for eight yards up the gut, then sliced off right tackle for 43. Soon the game would have its first touchdown, Turner plowing over, and not long afterward the Falcons were up 16-6. They’d finally gotten a handle on the ‘Boys of Rob, and now it was down to Mike Nolan’s defense to seal the game.
As it happened, the Falcons’ D saved their worst series for a rather significant moment. They’d had Romo addled only moments before, but desperation has a way of focusing the mind. The Cowboys drove to a blurry-fast touchdown, and now the Falcons had to move or risk losing.
They moved and won. Another guy named Ryan steered the Falcons to the clinching points, with much help from the deft footwork of Jacquizz Rodgers, who kept taking short passes and making Cowboys miss and thereby converting vital third downs. Matt Bryant’s field goal at 0:17 made it a six-point game and an 8-0 season.
Said Thomas DeCoud, the Falcon free safety: “We played really, really good defense. They’ve got a lot of big-name guys (on defense) over there, but they let the ball go over their head a couple of times.”
Said cornerback Asante Samuel: “We had a lot of plays we shouldn’t have given up on that (touchdown) drives, but I think we were the better defense.”
Said Dunta Robinson, the other cornerback: “I love the situation when it’s all up to us to stop the opponent. We have the kind of defense that can bail out the offense, and they can do it for us, too. That’s why we’re a complete team.”
The Falcons wound up scoring on their final three possessions and gaining 275 second-half yards against the NFL’s No. 4 defense, making Rob Ryan a poor prophet. Not only had his team failed to win a game he said it had to have, his defense came up second-best on this field. Nolan’s No-Names held the famous Cowboys to 13 points and walked away winners for the eighth time in eight games. We can quibble over numbers, but there can be no arguing with 8-0.
By Mark Bradley