Tampa – The 8-0 start was nice, but we all know the Atlanta Falcons won’t be judged on what they did in September, or November. Heck, even Mike Smith, the buttoned-up coach, spoke these words in August: “When we get there (meaning the playoffs), we’ve got to play better football.”
We can’t know how these Falcons — or those Packers or Patriots or any team — will fare in the playoffs until 2013 arrives, but we have a bit better feel about the local franchise today. The Falcons just left here having won a game that wouldn’t have seemed out of place if you stuck it in January. They played a hot team. They fell behind three times. They won 24-23.
They won with a sprinkling of flash — the 80-yard pass to Julio Jones that overrode a Tampa Bay lead in 11 seconds — but mostly they won with force, and that was a heartening sign. This team had risen to 8-0 and then 9-1 without doing much in the way of running the ball or stopping the run. On Sunday they did both. They nudged the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense for 79 vital ground yards, and they limited the splendid Doug Martin to 50 yards on 21 carries.
Afterward linebacker Sean Weatherspoon would dismiss Martin as just “a rookie running back,” but Weatherspoon was laughing and playing to a gaggle of fellow linebackers in the corner of a festive locker room.
“He said it!” Stephen Nicholas said. “You write it!” (Done, sir.)
Said Weatherspoon: “Mike Peterson got the stop!”
Said Nicholas: “Yeah, Mike Pete!”
In a game that featured a dozen massive plays, the aging Mike Peterson’s second-quarter takedown of the rookie running back ranked near the top. The Falcons had just been smacked on consecutive downs: The similarly aging Ronde Barber had intercepted yet another Matt Ryan pass, and Buc receiver Mike Williams had thrown a deep ball to Buc receiver Vincent Jackson, who was halted by Nicholas at the Falcons’ 3. On third-and-goal from the 1, Martin ran left and had only Peterson, who’s 36, to beat. Peterson grabbed him and hung on.
That was the game in miniature. One side would make a play, and the other would counter. The Falcons countered last and hardest. Said Weatherspoon: “We were able to show our DNA again … Whenever there was a sudden change (meaning a turnover), we showed our defensive resiliency.”
Twice the Bucs took the ball beyond midfield off Ryan turnovers. Twice the defense controlled the damage, yielding a field goal each time. And when the Falcons nosed ahead by a point with 7:55 remaining, the D — by then working with two banged-up cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson having suffered a head injury and Asante Samuel lugging a bum arm — forced Tampa Bay to try a 56-yard field goal that had no chance.
Then it was down to the offense to kill the final 3:55, and it burned off all but eight seconds. Three runs — the first a 14-yard burst by the backup Jacquizz Rodgers — took the game beyond the two-minute warning, and a nerveless Ryan completion to Roddy White on third-and-five all but sealed the deal. Said guard Justin Blalock: “When we needed to run and control the clock, we did a fair job of nearly running the clock out.”
The Falcons didn’t push Tampa Bay backwards, but they did run the ball when they needed to run it, which is what Smith has said was the idea all along. Why run so much against an opponent that was No. 1 against the run but dead last against the pass? Smith: “We felt like we needed to try it, and we felt like we could do it, too.”
This was far better than the 46 yards rushing this team managed in the loss to the defenseless Saints two weeks earlier. This was good enough to make Sunday one of the two or three victories this 10-win team has seen. “It felt like we played pretty decent,” center Todd McClure said. “Not great, but this is definitely a better feeling.”
And now the Falcons get the Saints again, this time in the Georgia Dome on Thursday night, and they welcome the opportunity. They won here on a day when the outcome was in doubt until the final whistle, and they’ll have to win more such games if they plan to play into February. “It was a playoff atmosphere,” said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and for once the Falcons held steady in the rarefied air.
Said Peterson: “That was coach Smith’s message all week: ‘Don’t blink.’ He talked to us about not getting down and not pointing fingers when they made a big play. And when you go on the road and beat a hot team in its place, you can take that win and use it as momentum.”
It sounds a little odd, given that the Falcons have played 11 games and lost only once, but as December awaits they were in need of a kick-start. They might have gotten it here.
Further reading: On the shifty Jacquizz Rodgers and the shifting Mike Smith.
By Mark Bradley