It had been so long since the Atlanta Falcons won – six weeks, to be exact – that team president Rich McKay had grown a fully realized goatee. “I wasn’t shaving until we won again,” he said Sunday night, and he’d already gotten a text message from his wife back home, the gist of which was: Streak’s over; get rid of that thing.
In the grand scheme of games, the Falcons’ overtime defeat of the nondescript Buffalo Bills, in a building foreign by both ambiance and geography, will be little remembered. In the here and now of a wretched season, it felt pretty sweet. When a team goes as bad as this one, there’s never a guarantee that worse won’t be forthcoming. For all the lip service paid to Not Quitting, a reeling bunch needs a game like this to prove that it hasn’t actually quit.
To their credit, the Falcons haven’t. They spotted Buffalo 14 points in a Rogers Centre that seemed populated only by Bills fans. But, when finally the Falcons completed their first pass and made their initial first down, they were shocked at how many backers this Southern organization had in Ontario.
“The crazy part was that we had a lot of support here,” said strong safety William Moore, who was involved in the two plays that kept this from being a fifth consecutive loss. “I don’t know where they came from. I even saw a No. 25 jersey.” (Meaning his).
What seemed a lousy NFL matchup – the 2-9 Falcons against the 4-7 Bills in a stadium known to most Americans as the home of the Blue Jays – became something approximating a rousing college game. The Falcons got way behind. Then they got ahead. Then they fumbled a snap and wound up behind again. Then they wasted three chances to tie before Harry Douglas, who’d gotten himself flagged for unnecessary roughness the play before, drew an interference penalty with 1:31 remaining. Steven Jackson scored the tying touchdown on the next play. Then the Bills wasted not one but two chances to win it.
Scratch that. It wasn’t as if the Bills dropped the ball of their own volition. Twice, the Falcons, driven by desperation but driven in a way that not all 2-9 teams would be, knocked it loose. Robert McClain did it near the end of regulation, with Moore recovering the fumble, and then Moore himself applied the swat on the first series of overtime. This led to a bit of comedic byplay. Rookie cornerback Robert Alford gathered up the bounding ball and lateraled to fellow rookie Desmond Trufant, who had the good sense to get tackled before he could do something even sillier.
Coach Mike Smith greeted Alford on the sideline. “I told him that should be the last time you do that,” Smith said. “Not in those exact words. I’m paraphrasing.”
A Matt Ryan throwback to Douglas brought the Falcons within range. Matt Bryant ended it. For the moment, the Falcons no longer hold the NFL’s worst record. (The Houston Texans are 2-10.) Maybe this victory will wind up costing the Falcons the overall No. 1 draft pick, but we can’t blame them for trying to win. It is, after all, their job.
“This is obviously what you play for,” guard Justin Blalock said. “Guys did show a lot of heart to get back in the game. Smitty is always talking about sustaining emotion during a game, but that’s not something you can work on in practice. With the kind of men we have in this locker room, there was never a doubt (that they’d lie down on the job).”
McClain, who was beaten early for catches by Stevie Johnson and beaten again inside the final minute of regulation, didn’t lie down. He chased Johnson and punched the ball loose. When he saw Moore recover the fumble, McClain said, “I knew the game wasn’t over.”
Back in the first quarter, Smith had engaged the beset McClain in a sideline chat, only the cornerback did much of the talking. Said Smith: “He said, ‘It’s just the first quarter, coach.’ ”
Then Smith said this: “We needed all four of them, and the fifth one, too.”
At this point, the Falcons are just trying to get through the 16th game with their dignity intact, which isn’t easy when you’ve been eliminated from playoff qualification by November after playing for the NFC title in January. But this spirited Sunday showed that whatever else ails this team – and obviously much does – it still cares. That’s nice to know.
It was likewise nice to see that more than a few hardy Canadians felt moved to don Falcon regalia and come cheer for a 2-9 team. “We’ll take what we can get,” Tony Gonzalez said. “Anybody who’s still rooting for us, we welcome them.”