It wasn’t just that they lost – although when your impatient owner is talking about his thirst for Super Bowl rings, losing carries obvious perils – but the way this loss unfolded. The Atlanta Falcons trailed by 14 points seven minutes and 38 seconds into their season. They worked the rest of the game and never drew closer. They were beaten 28-12 by a team they outgained by 76 yards.
Here’s how pitiful this performance, if it can be so labeled, was. Minnesota threw three passes after halftime, none in the fourth quarter. The Vikings didn’t need to do more. They had only to stand back and let the Falcons trip over themselves.
This wasn’t the first time these Falcons have made it easy on an opponent of lesser gifts. That it has happened so often is the reason Dan Quinn moved to fire his three coordinators on New Year’s Eve. Boilerplate disclaimer: This was only one game, and it was the first game under this management. But boy howdy was it an awful start.
The Falcons’ first snap of 2019 saw neither tight end Austin Hooper or left tackle Jake Matthews block the blitzing Anthony Barr, who sacked Matt Ryan. (“It wasn’t our best first play,” Ryan would say, and nobody rose to object.) The first punt was blocked by an up-the-middle rusher. The first defensive series ended with Adam Thielen beating Isaiah Oliver for a touchdown.
Ryan’s first pass was intercepted. (He forced it into double coverage of Julio Jones.) The second defensive series ended with Dalvin Cook flitting 19 yards to score. Just like that, it was 14-0, and the U.S. Bank Stadium gathering was hollering itself hoarse. Said Ryan: “You don’t want to encourage that place to get into it.”
But that’s what happened. The Vikings hit the ground running. The Falcons hit the ground face-first. All three phases, to use Quinn’s phrase, failed in as bad an opening 7½ as any Falcons season ever has known. None of the new coordinators – Dirk Koetter on offense, Ben Kotwica on special teams, Quinn himself on defense – will put this first quarter on their audition tape. And If they don’t do better, they’ll all be looking for work.
Said Quinn: “We missed the mark today. We missed it badly.”
It was 21-0 at the half. It was still 21-0 late in the third quarter, when a laborious Falcons possession of no special brilliance – twice the Vikings were penalized on third down – seemed about to bear fruit. On first-and-goal from the 2, the Falcons inserted tackle Ty Sambrailo as a tight end. Power football, right? Yes and no. Ito Smith, who’s 5-foot-9 took a handoff and lost a yard. Sambrailo remained for second down, only this time Ryan faked a handoff and sought to do … something.
This excellent quarterback has had bewildering moments before – the Tramon Williams pick-6 in the divisional playoff round against Green Bay, the throw-to-nowhere in the collapse at Wembley, the Eric Berry pick-2 in the Super Bowl season – and here came another. Quinn said Ryan was trying to give tight end Luke Stocker a chance to make a play in the end zone. Ryan said he was trying to throw the ball out of the end zone. He wound up throwing it the one place he couldn’t – to free safety Anthony Harris.
Said Ryan: “That was tough. That’s disappointing. I just didn’t throw the ball far enough away. … I’ve got to put it in a spot where it’s us or nobody.”
A drive spanning 13 plays (plus two penalties) and 7:37 had led to nowhere and nothing. Kirk Cousins completed two passes. The always-disciplined Falcons defense – first DeVondre Campbell, then Keanu Neal – were flagged for lowering the head on consecutive plays. Cook, who would rush for 111 yards, scored again. All those who came to this palatial stadium waiting to see how the Vikings’ offense would do are still wondering. In a league where passing is supposed to hold sway, the Falcons lost by 16 after trailing by 28 to a team that threw for 98 yards.
Said Quinn: “To come out and perform the way we did was disturbing.”
We stipulate that the Vikings are very good at what they do, which is play defense. Mike Zimmer has made his reputation wrong-footing a slew of showy offenses, and he did it again Sunday. Julio Jones, the 66-million-dollar man, caught six passes for a total of 31 yards. He scored with 65 seconds left, but by then nobody cared. Zimmer’s men had bracketed Jones, as we saw on Ryan’s first interception, and if Julio’s not Julio then the Falcons are just another team.
That said, it has been a while since the Falcons, for all their gifts, were something but a garden-variety bunch. They’re 18-18 since winning the NFC title. This was billed as a game between teams capable of winning tough divisions. The Vikings held up their end. The Falcons had to score twice in the final minutes to keep it from being an utter embarrassment.
Said Quinn: “We’ll find out a lot about who we are, the way we come back from this.”
Said Ryan, asked if his youngish offensive line was a work in progress: “We’re all a work in process. That’s not acceptable.”
Nope. It wasn’t. But we’ve heard that a lot from these guys since the bitter memory of 28-3, and on this opening Sunday the third quarter ended with it 28-0 the other way. The Vikings have no quarterback like Ryan and no receiver like Jones, but they know who they are and play to their strengths. They are, ahem, well-coached.
One game in, the best we can say about the 2019 Falcons is that they’re differently coached. They’re also 0-1, same as last year.
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