This Falcons season was a clumsy and confusing run-on sentence, one often going in two directions at once. But at least it ended with an exclamation point.
For this 7-9 team, the last play of 2019 may have been the most enjoyable one of them all — admittedly the selection of highlights is limited. It was one that bore little to no resemblance to the hundreds of plays the Falcons ran over the long and awful first half of the season.
A cure? No. There was no cure for that toxic 1-7 start.
A palliative? Certainly. A feel-good finish to a 6-2 second half to take into the offseason and enjoy like a big umbrella drink at poolside while so many other teams are still playing meaningful games.
Watching linebacker Deion Jones so perfectly dissect the classically flawed Jameis Winston, pick off the Tampa Bay quarterback on the first play in overtime and return it for a 27-yard walk-off touchdown had to make even the most cynical, beaten-down Falcons fan smile.
In a season so lacking in keepsake moments, Jones managed to come up with a play that will reside in a special, cool corner of his memories. “Man, because of the season we had, yeah, for sure it will,” he said afterward. “We finally got our defensive score this year, we finished on top, with the ball, we won, finished it off the way we wanted to. Yeah, for sure.”
That it was Jones supplying an uplifting closing statement was only right. It remains that this is a roster in need of a significant facelift. If you’re not going to fire the coach or the general manager — and that was made clear Friday before anything else could taint the Falcons supply of corporate, press conference jibber-jabber — that only leaves one other alternative.
Fire the players.
And among a collection where so very few might be deemed indispensable, Jones stands as a significant force for the future. This team’s first score Sunday — a 35-yard pass to the eligible tackle Ty Sambrailo — was a lark. It was in fact the longest scoring reception by a 300-plus-pound player in NFL history, qualifying it for the midway of the next league carnival. But the Jones play, so perfect in anticipation and execution, was the kind of play you can depend upon over the long run.
“It couldn’t come at a better time for a better person or a better player. I loved to see that,” said another of those rare untouchable Falcons, lineman Grady Jarrett.
When the 28-22 win was done, the Falcons returned to the cramped visitors locker room at Raymond James Stadium and carried on madly. Music played. Happy shouts echoed into the hallway. There may have even been a dance or two. Imagine what it would have been like had they actually clinched something.
“It was fun to be in there,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We’ve been through a lot as a team, ups and downs. To finish it off the right way is rewarding.”
“We righted the ship after the first half of the season and that’s all we can be proud of right now,” Jones said when asked about the celebration. “We got some tough guys in here. We never quit. We always fought to the end, and that’s the result of it.”
Sunday will not be preserved as primer on artful football. The work the Falcons must do along both lines was still quite evident, even in victory. Ryan suffered six sacks, one resulting in a fumble and 91-yard touchdown return near the close of the first half. They in turn inflicted only one sack upon Winston.
This was more football as a survivalist would play it, out there on the ragged edge of subsistence. And that really was more indicative of the best you could hope for with this team, considering how it is currently configured.
In the game’s final three minutes, Ryan drove the Falcons 65 yards for a tying field goal (Younghoe Koo had five of them this day). They also had to rely upon three missed Tampa Bay field goals and the fact that Winston was so determined to attain a dubious NFL benchmark. With his last throw of the year, he was a 30-30 man — 30 interceptions to go along with at least 30 touchdowns (33 in all).
When the Falcons lost the coin flip in overtime, it was not really clear which team that favored. It meant that Winston would take the field first and expose the Bucs to all kinds of risk. Then one play later, every bad possibility he brings to the party conspired to aid in this Falcons victory.
With the win, the Falcons took second place in the NFC South away from Tampa Bay. No parade down Peachtree is scheduled.
With the win, they will sacrifice a couple more slots in the draft and contend with a slightly more difficult second-place schedule in 2020.
What the win doesn’t do is add any great weight to the announcement Friday that head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff will return next year. To believe that would be a mistake. This was not a grand endorsement of anything but the collective pride of the players.
Take what lessons you can from this 6-2 finish, which honestly, was a nice coat of lacquer on a broken bench.
“I think all of us, all of, us need to channel our inner Yogi Berra. It ain’t over til is over,” Quinn said in celebration. But we may note that finishing out of the postseason for the a second straight season and quoting someone who won 10 World Series may be a bit of a reach.
It was a nice win and a strong finish. Beyond that, there is plenty of room to wonder, really, what the carry-over will be to next year in a league that changes like the weather.
But let’s leave the doubting there. The last words to the season are reserved for Jones, who earned them on the last play of the season.
“In these hard times we all looked at ourselves and figured out what we could do more, and a lot of guys did more,” he said. “No one shied away from the task. It just showed us how tough we are, how resilient we are.
“I just feel like we weren’t the team we started off to be. We finished strong, got momentum going into the next season. We just got to pick up where we left off.
“With the guys we have and what we proved to ourselves, I think we will.”
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