So now we know: In addition to being a darn good football team, the Atlanta Falcons are the world’s best sandbaggers.
In working 13 games of varying quality, they’d dropped the hint that this team was no better than before and was, ergo, bound for the same one-and-done postseason fate. Turns out the Falcons were just being sly. “Go hyperventilate over somebody else,” they were saying, “while we win enough games to put ourselves in position. And then you can tell us again how we can’t beat anybody any good when it matters.”
On Sunday this unassuming crew dropped a 500-pound sandbag on the collective noggin of the reigning Super Bowl champions. Forty-nine weeks ago, the Falcons were overpowered 24-2 in the Meadowlands. But these Falcons, as was made manifest Sunday, are not those Falcons. These Falcons not only beat the haughty Giants by 34 points but pulled off a deft bit of role reversal.
Remember how the Falcons scored zero offensive points Jan. 8? The Giants scored zero points, period, on this given Sunday. Remember the three failed fourth-and-1’s of last season? Remember that two of those came against the Giants? The Falcons blunted three fourth-down bids this day, including fourth-and-1’s on consecutive first-half possessions.
The Falcons ran faster, hit harder, played smarter. “This game was won in preparation,” coach Mike Smith said, but it was also won in those dizzying days after Jan. 8, a time that saw the offensive and defensive coordinators leave and be replaced by Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan.
What happened Sunday was what should have happened in January, but the 2011 Falcons never found a mesh of talent and scheme. The 2012 edition has. On Jan. 8, the rookie Julio Jones caught seven passes for 64 yards to absolutely no effect. On Sunday, the same Jones caught six passes for 74 yards — and two touchdowns.
On Jan. 8, a defense overseen by Brian VanGorder watched benignly as Eli Manning threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. On Sunday, the same E. Manning completed only 13 of 25 passes Sunday and saw two intercepted, including his first delivery of the game. Asante Samuel, imported from Philadelphia in April, jumped the route and sent the Falcons winging.
Said Smith: “Our disguise package in the passing game was good.” Of Samuel’s interception: “That was a little different look … That was a look Eli probably hadn’t seen from us.”
These 60 minutes were everything we’ve wanted to see from the Falcons, and to be fair we’d seen it all in snippets: Disguised D against Eli’s big brother in September; a flawless Matt Ryan in Philadelphia in October; a mighty effort in Tampa on November. We hadn’t, however, seen it in the same 60 minutes. When finally it came together — when the defense surrenders no points on a day when Ryan’s quarterback ranking trumps E. Manning’s by 103.7 points — we saw a team that is every as glittering as its record.
“Our focus this week was heightened,” Smith said, and part of that was due to the egg his team laid in Charlotte last week, but surely more had to do with the calendar and the opponent. This was December, when the cream of the NFL is supposed to rise, and these were the Giants, who’d just won it all. This team had made “statements” before — beating Denver and Philly and Dallas and New Orleans — but nothing so forceful as this.
Said free safety Thomas DeCoud: “We proved we can dominate a legitimate playoff-caliber team. We proved we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
It was as if these coy Birds had been biding their time before unleashing a truly surpassing performance, and if so, who could blame them? They’ve had to hear all year how nothing will matter until they show they can win in the playoffs, and if this wasn’t quite a playoff game it was the next-best thing.
“Who’s ready to get back on the bandwagon?” tight end Tony Gonzalez said, but the Falcons’ wagon hadn’t gained much traction. For 3 1/2 months, national observers have looked for reasons to rank a half-dozen teams with lesser records above the one that started 8-0 and is now 12-2.
Said Gonzalez: “Honestly, I really don’t care (about conventional wisdom) … We know we’re a good football team. But national recognition and validation will come only when we get in the playoffs and play like we can.”
We’ve known for a while that this is a good team. We learned Sunday that it has the capacity to be great. Yes, the Falcons still have to do it in the playoffs, but they can and should. Somebody’s going to have to beat them in the Dome, and nobody has this year.
Gonzalez again: “I understand why the media doesn’t have the stomach to pick us.”
Oh, really? Now hear this: The defending NFL champ just lost here by 34 points — to the next NFL champ.
Further reading: The Falcons’ domination, adroit Asante and one great play.
By Mark Bradley