Welcome to misery central for the Falcons.
New England followed last year’s Super Bowl, born in Atlanta sports Hades, to this year’s hyped up “revenge” rematch in October. The Patriots had a taunting “28-3” on the scoreboard during pregame warmups and a fresh reality of “23-7” at game’s end. Philadelphia was a home underdog to the Falcons in the second round of the playoffs, but the Falcons followed an upset win in Los Angeles with a 15-10 belly-flop against the Eagles.
In the past two seasons, the Falcons are 0-4 against these two teams. Somebody has somebody’s number.
So there’s angst in Atlanta about the offense and the future, largely because of what happened against these two teams. But do the Patriots and Eagles concur?
“To me that’s a really good football team, and we just got the better of them that night,” New England safety Devin McCourty said, referencing the meeting in October. “I don’t know how it goes if we play them 10 times.”
(I know: Don’t ask a jaded Atlanta sports fan that question.)
“They’re such a high-powered offense,” Philadelphia defense end Brandon Graham said.
(I know. You’re thinking, “What year of tape was he watching?”)
Tony Dungy won Super Bowls as a player with Pittsburgh and a coach in Indianapolis. He was on NBC’s broadcast crew for the Falcons’ playoff loss at Philly and believes concern over the Falcons’ future and doubts about offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian are way overstated.
“They were a different style of offense this year,” he said. “They were fast-paced and fast-break all of last year. This year they were relying on their defense a little more, trying to be what coach (Dan) Quinn wanted. But I think they’re growing. Coach Sarkisian is learning those guys, and they’re learning him. It’s still evolving.”
So the Eagles’ game didn’t alarm him?
“If they intercept that ball at the end of the first half, they’re going to win that game,” Dungy said, referencing a would-be interception that bounced off Keanu Neal’s knee and into the hands of receiver Torrey Smith, leading to an Eagles’ field goal just before the half. “Then Julio (Jones) has a ball in his hands in the end zone to win it. So they played pretty well. And I don’t think they played their best game against New England, but New England does that to a lot of teams.”
There were common denominators in this season’s losses to the Patriots and Eagles. The Falcons struggled on third down (2-for-9 vs. New England, 4-for-13 vs. Philadelphia) and in the red zone (1-for-4 vs. New England, 1-for-3 vs. Philadelphia). Opportunities lost.
The first three red-zone situations against the Patriots resulted in a blocked field-goal attempt, a missed field-goal attempt and bupkis after first-and-goal from the 10. Perhaps visions of Taylor Gabriel get smacked on an ill-conceived jet sweep on fourth down from the 1-yard line still haunt you.
Dungy referenced two key moments against Philly that would’ve made a difference in the result. But that ignores most of the game. The Falcons’ lone two scores followed Eagles turnovers. They lost the line of scrimmage. The Eagles harrassed Matt Ryan with a four-man rush and limited the Falcons to nine possessions and 86 yards rushing (Devonta Freeman, slowed by a knee injury, averaged 0.7 yards per carry.)
Graham said the Eagles knew the Falcons were physical in their playoff win over the Rams and believed they would have an edge in that area.
“They took advantage of some things against the Rams,” he said. “We thought it would go down to the wire in our game, and it did. When you play a high-powered offense like that, you can’t let them get going. We knew it was going to be a defensive battle. We proved that we were the better team that day.”
Graham said it was a different game than the Eagles’ 24-15 win in the regular season last year.
“Last year, it just felt like they missed some catches,” he said. “Julio missed a catch I’ve never seen him drop before (a deep third-down pass in the third quarter). He was wide open. This year we just played a lot better. It wasn’t no fluke.”
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said people make too much about scheme vs. scheme. It’s more about player vs. player. And he’s right: The Falcons got punched in the mouth in both games. They made mistakes. The Eagles sought to stop the run and contain Julio Jones. Not rocket science.
“Schemes don’t stand on their own,” Schwartz said. “It’s a little bit like a catcher calling for a pitch. You can call for a fastball all you want, but if the guy doesn’t have a good fastball that day or he’s not a good fastball thrower, you’re not going to call a good game. A good catcher keeps that in mind and a good coach keeps that in mind. ... We had confidence in our matchups and our ability to create stops and you saw that in that game.”
McCourty acknowledges the Patriots’ recent success against the Falcons, but he also remembers New England getting torched for 2-1/2 quarters of the Super Bowl.
“That’s a tough offense to stop,” he said. “Weapons everywhere. You have to play well when you go against those guys. Julio Jones makes a catch at the end in the end zone. If he makes a few of those, it’s a different game.”
If he makes a few of those, the Falcons are here this week.
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