This is the time to put away everything you thought about the Falcons before this weekend.
Forget about that early three-game losing streak. (Especially the one at home to Jay Cutler and Miami. You may need to pre-soak the stain). Forget about more humiliation at New England, and the flat performances against Carolina, Minnesota and New Orleans, and all of the narrow escapes (as we fight from traveling back to the 10-second run off in Detroit).
The Falcons suddenly have the look of a team that can go back to the Super Bowl. What they lack in the wow-look-at-that factor in their offense, they make up for on the other side of the ball and everybody’s favorite 42-year-old Oompa Loompa, Matt Bryant.
They opened the postseason by dumping the Los Angeles Rams 26-13, their first road playoff win since Michael Vick outplayed Brett Favre at Lambeau Field in 2002. They’re actually favored over the NFC’s No. 1 seed, Philadelphia, next Saturday thanks largely to the Eagles having lost their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, a few weeks ago.
This conference – once more with feeling – is wide open.
Last season was a party. This seems closer to a mission, an intended exorcism even. That was evident after the game in comments from a veteran (Matt Ryan: “We’re not here just to get here. We want to make noise.” ) to a rookie (Takk McKinley: “I’m not celebrating nothing. I mean, it’s cool to win my first playoff game, but at the end of the day, this team has a bigger goal.”)
So many gave up on this bunch. That was a mistake.
“We’re growing,” Mohamed Sanu said. “We’re getting better each week. We’re definitely better than we were earlier in the season. We’ve just got to keep stacking, keep building.”
The offense is still not functioning at a high level. Pass protection was a problem against the Rams’ front seven. With a late touchdown Saturday, the Falcons went 2-for-4 in the red zone against the Rams but they’re only 4-for-13 over the last three games.
But the defense’s evolution is real. Their game plan against the Rams was on point, giving L.A.’s young, flying opponents little open space. Their tackling was nearly flawless, which limited yards after catch.
“Their yards after catch was so high that we knew we had to mix some man-to-man, mix in our pressure, and challenge the guys at the line of scrimmage, so they didn’t have free access to run and catch against a zone defense all night,” coach Dan Quinn said.
The Falcons looked like they were supposed to be there. The Rams looked uncomfortable and out of rhythm.
The reviews from the losing locker room spoke volumes. L.A. didn’t absolve itself of criticism but players mostly spread praise about the Falcons’ defense:
From quarterback Jared Goff on Todd Gurley being limited to 10 yards receiving: “They’ve got really athletic defensive players. Really fast, really athletic linebackers, and that can tend to stop that a little bit. They played great -- every facet of the game.”
From wide receiver Robert Woods: “Fast defense. Fast guys on the edge with (Vic) Beasley at linebacker. They’re able to fly around and they were meeting us at the edge:”
From Gurley: “They played great. They have great players. They’re not the reigning NFC champs for no reason.”
Reigning NFC champions. Almost forgot.
That got lost during this season’s hiccups. Most naturally were focused on the offense, a weekly blaring spotlight in 2016 that often was closer to a 40-watt bulb.
But the Falcons managed to go 10-6. Not great but not bad. They were the only NFC team to make it back to the playoffs. They entered the postseason as the No. 6 seed but consider what they were looking up to:
• Philadelphia, 13-3: The Eagles were easily the conference’s best overall team but lost Wentz with three games left. Backup Nick Foles inspires so little confidence publicly that bookmakers have made the Falcons a 2-1/2-point favorite next week, the first time a sixth seed ever has been favored over a No. 1.
• Minnesota, 13-3: A solid team brilliantly coached by Mike Zimmer. The Vikings defeated the Falcons 14-9 last month in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was one of the Falcons’ worst games of the season (1-for-10 on third down; 275 yards in offense; zero touchdowns for the first time in two years). But Minnesota is limited offensively. Starting quarterback Case Keenum was let go by two teams: Houston and the team the Falcons just beat.
• Rams, 11-5: Gone.
• New Orleans and Carolina, both 11-5: The Falcons know both well as NFC South rivals. They split with both during the season.
Quinn is a slogan guy. He dispenses them to players and slaps them on T-shirts for the team. In the offseason, he could be seen wearing, “Embrace the suck” wristbands, the message being to endure the hard work and the pain, which seemed appropriate amid the Super Bowl hangover. Last week, he wore his, “Arrive violently” T-shirt.
Nobody knew what to expect when the Falcons’ arrived in the playoffs. Now we know. They’ve got a shot.
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