The Falcons really need to prove they’re still good

Starting 0-2 doesn’t always wreck an NFL team. It complicates matters, but we can cite recent examples – the Panthers in 2013, the Saints in 2017, the Texans and Seahawks last year – of seasons that started badly but resulted in postseason qualification. We mention this because the Falcons, 0-1, are a slight underdog against Philadelphia; a loss Sunday night would leave 0-for-2019.

That would be bad, yes, but good teams can mess up early – the Patriots were 2-2 in 2017 and reached the Super Bowl; they were 1-2 last season and won the Super Bowl – and execute the necessary course corrections. Which brings us to today’s exercise: Should we still consider the Falcons a good team?

Since winning the NFC title on Jan. 22, 2017, they’re 18-18. In the 2017 regular season, they beat two teams – New Orleans and Carolina – that made the playoffs. They beat three other teams that finished 9-7. They beat the Rams in L.A. in the wild-card round. Coming off the Super Bowl, that was a slightly disappointing season but not a terrible one.

Last year was terrible. The Falcons were 7-9, and it was a bad 7-9. They didn’t beat any opponent that made the playoffs or broke .500. They closed with three victories over teams that went an aggregate 15-33. They lost to three teams that finished with losing records.

In 2016, the Super Bowl season, Football Outsiders rated the Falcons the NFL's third-best team. In 2017, the season that ended with the wretched loss in Philadelphia, they were 15th. Last year, they were 18th. As we speak, they're – whoa, Nellie – 29th. Granted, it's too early to know much of anything. (And Football Outsiders wasn't high on the 2019 Falcons to begin with, projecting 7.6 "mean wins.") Still, this wouldn't seem a team that is in any way trending upward.

For public consumption, the Falcons act as they did in 2016, when they went 11-5 against one of the NFL's toughest schedules and proved to all of us that they could walk the walk. Lately, though, they've merely talked the talk. The high-profile owner speaks of rings. The energetic coach looks shocked when his team loses, though his team has lost often. We keep hearing about the Falcons' talent, and then they get obliterated in Minneapolis and we ask, "What exactly about this bunch is supposed to be good?"

The Falcons pass the eyeball test. They have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Alex Mack, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. These are supposed to be good players. Desmond Trufant and Vic Beasley once were considered good players. Still, it has been so long since the Falcons looked the part of a top-shelf team – we’d need to go back to the playoff game in Los Angeles in January 2018 – that the egg laid last Sunday has become more rule than exception.

It’s impossible to speak of the Falcons under Quinn without invoking the night of Feb. 5, 2017. Had they held any part of that 28-3 lead in Houston, we’d have looked at them differently, if not forever and ever then at least for the next several years. Arthur M. Blank would have his ring. DQ would be a certified Super Bowl winner. This organization would have been granted the benefit of most every doubt, not that Super Bowl winners are much doubted.

We can never know where the Falcons would be today had they held that lead, but it’s tempting – maybe too tempting, we concede – to think they would occupy a much better place than they do. It’s not that they approach every game thinking, “How are we going to blow it this time?” That’s not the way pros think. That said, Super Bowl winners carry themselves in a way Super Bowl losers do not, and no team has ever lost a Super Bowl the way this one did.

Back to Sunday night’s opponent, which has won a Super Bowl of recent vintage. The Falcons should have won in Philly in January 2018 and then again nine months later; instead they lost the same game twice.

Why? Because the since-jettisoned Steve Sarkisian didn’t know what to call in the red zone? (Um, yeah!) Or is their failing something that transcends X’s and O’s and OCs, something that even Football Outsiders can’t measure? Put simply, have the Falcons stopped believing?

The Falcons made that Super Bowl on merit. They had skill and swagger and they were, to borrow from Quinn, hard as hell to beat. The Vikings just found them easy to beat. (When last did an NFL team win completing two second-half passes?) At some point the Falcons have to rise up and prove to everyone, themselves included, that they’re still capable of beating somebody good. Philly on Sunday night affords that opportunity.