I understand, sort of, the temptation to underrate the Falcons. Their numbers — well, apart from 12-2 — aren’t gaudy. They’re seventh in total offense, 20th in total defense. Of those 12 wins, eight have come against teams currently under .500. Of those 12 wins, seven have been by a touchdown or less. They really didn’t whomp anybody any good until Sunday, and even then …
On cue, Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders posted Monday on ESPN Insiders that the Falcons’ 34-0 drubbing of the Giants was nothing special. Wrote Verhei: “It was just one game in a long season, and a clear outlier at that, not a new standard of excellence.”
Again, some of this I understand. To watch this team week by week — though not this past week, I should stipulate — has been to wonder how it wins so many games. But we’re at the point where the Falcons have amassed a substantial body of work, and in the NFL aren’t you supposed to be what your record says you are?
Apparently not. As Verhei notes, Football Outsiders didn’t have the Falcons in the top 10 of last week’s efficiency ratings. That’s a troubling number, yes. But there are a couple of others that should bring holiday cheer to Birdland, and they are:
Know how it’s sometimes said that you don’t need a big-time quarterback to win the Super Bowl? That hasn’t been true for a while. The past 11 championship quarterbacks: Tom Brady (three times), Eli Manning (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers — and Brad Johnson, who’s the joker in the pack and whose Buccaneers took their title in January 2003.
If you look at the Falcons’ pass defense on graph paper, it’s middling at best — 17th in yardage, 15th in completion percentage, 20th in yards per attempt. But if you check how this defense has fared in the Dome against Brees and the Mannings, the numbers are stunning: One touchdown pass (that by P. Manning) against 10 interceptions.
Each time, the Falcons’ pass defense produced a superlative. Against the Broncos on Sept. 17, the Falcons became only the second team to intercept three P. Manning passes in the first quarter. Against the Saints on Nov. 29, they intercepted five Brees passes — a career worst for him — and broke his NFL-record streak of 54 games with a touchdown pass. Against the Giants on Sunday, they authored the first shutout loss ever suffered by E. Manning.
Yes, we’ve left out Brees’ showing against the Falcons in the Saints’ victory in New Orleans — three touchdowns, one interception, a passer rating of 113.8 — for a basic reason: That happened elsewhere. If the Falcons win either of their remaining regular-season games, they’ll be here until the Super Bowl, and under this off-white roof a remade defense has befuddled the very best.
If the playoffs began today, the other NFC qualifiers would be San Francisco, Green Bay, Washington, Seattle and Minnesota. Of those five quarterbacks, two are gifted rookies (the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson). The 49ers’ quarterback is second-year man Colin Kaepernick, who’s really good but who has started only five NFL games. The Vikings’ quarterback is second-year man Christian Ponder, who’s most famous for being engaged to ESPN’s Samantha Steele.
It’s possible that one of those youngsters could beat the Falcons here, but I’m not sure it’s probable. (The Mannings couldn’t. Brees couldn’t.) That leaves the aforementioned Rodgers, who torched the Falcons here in January 2011 and again 10 months later. But that was Brian VanGorder’s rather basic defense Green Bay exploited, not the craftier schemes implemented by Mike Nolan, master of disguise.
Can you win a Super Bowl by fooling people? Why not? There are no shutdown D’s anymore. The 49ers, ranked No. 2 in total defense, yielded 31 points in the second half at New England on Sunday night. Last season the Giants won the Super Bowl with the NFL’s 27th-best defense; in 2009 the Saints won with the 25th-best.
In the neo-NFL, defense isn’t about stonewalling anybody but about getting off the field, about late-down stops and turnovers. A hidden facet of the Falcons’ Sunday shutout was that the Giants punted only twice, but they didn’t score because the Falcons took the ball away three times and stopped them on fourth down three times. (The Giants also missed a field goal.)
Likewise, a hidden part of this giddy season is how good this secondary has become. The Falcons are fourth among NFL teams in interceptions, and 10 of their 18 INTs have come in the three games here against elite quarterbacks. Maybe I’m making too much of those games, and no, none of them came in the postseason. But if I’m the Falcons and I’ve shut down one Manning and shut out the other, I fear no man. Not even Aaron Rodgers.
Further reading: The Falcons’ domination, adroit Asante and one great play.
By Mark Bradley