What to make of this? A blind squirrel stumbling over an acorn? Water seeking, finally, its level? The Atlanta Falcons, celebrating a belated Halloween, showing up at the Superdome door dressed as the team they were supposed to be?
“A very confusing game,” was Arthur M. Blank’s unsolicited commentary, proving that if his gig as a billionaire owner/philanthropist doesn’t pan out, he’ll have a future in sports commentary.
A 7-1 team, playing at home, faced a 1-7 opponent. The 1-7 team never trailed. The 1-7 team played so well that, if you hadn’t known it was 1-7, you wouldn’t have believed it. The 1-7 team — that’d be the Falcons, Blank’s team — is 1-7 no longer. It’s a robust-by-comparison 2-7. It’s also 1-0 against NFC South opposition.
» PHOTOS: Matt Ryan returns to lead Falcons' win
The final score was 26-9, and that captures the gulf between these ancient enemies this given Sunday. The New Orleans Saints of Sean Payton and Drew Brees couldn't manage a touchdown, not even on the final snap of a game long since lost. (Michael Thomas was stopped a half-yard short of the goal line.) The Falcons, who'd just spent a fortnight — to invoke Blank's pithy phrase, "thinking real hard" — came to NOLA reinvented as the team from Mensa.
Everything they tried worked. Put another way, everything that hadn’t worked over a half-season began running like a chainsaw. The team that managed five sacks in its first seven games dropped the famous Brees six times. The team that rushed for 100 yards in one of its first eight games stomped out 143 yards on this Bizarro World day. A team that hadn’t held a double-figure lead since the third quarter against Philadelphia on Sept. 15 built one before halftime here as a 13.5-point underdog.
Said Matt Ryan: “When you’re 1-7, you think, ‘Where has the consistency been?’ But when it was there like it was today, you have to keep locked in and focused on the task at hand.”
Mission accomplished, at least this once. The Falcons, who’ve too often looked as if they had no idea what they were trying to do, were purposeful and powerful and poised. They called heads on the coin flip, which came up heads. They chose — Quinn chose — to take the ball. “I haven’t done that too many times,” he said, the rage among coaches being to defer the choice to the second half. “I wanted to be aggressive.”
That first drive began with a reverse that Calvin Ridley took for 19 yards. It ended five minutes and 33 seconds later with new kicker Younghoe Koo booting a 37-yard field goal. The Falcons weren’t perfect — three of their five offensive linemen drew penalties — but those linemen blocked in a way they haven’t all season. Of the 56 yards gained on that possession, 52 were via the rush. A tone had been set.
The Saints would respond with a tone of their own, a discordant one. They would been penalized nine times for 60 yards over the first three quarters; four of the flags were thrown for hands to the face. And when they weren’t tripping over themselves, the Falcons were knocking them backward.
Said safety Ricardo Allen: “We all just fought together ... There was an urgency in us doing our jobs.”
New Orleans had risen to 7-1 with Brees missing five starts and running back Alvin Kamara missing two. For the first time since Week 2, both were in the starting backfield Sunday. Brees needed 45 dinky passes to muster 287 yards, most of those coming after the game was gone. Kamara rushed for 24 yards and caught passes for 50 more but never put his stamp on the game.
Koo’s third field goal — there’d be a fourth, with no misses interspersed — put the Falcons ahead 23-9 with 7:33 left. There was still time for the Saints to score twice, but they had to get going. They ran five plays and made one first down. Brees was sacked on first-and-10 by Grady Jarrett and on fourth-and-5 by Vic Beasley. Would wonders never cease?
Asked how much coaching “adjustments” had to do with this stunning victory and how much could be attributed to players making plays, Quinn said: “Probably more of the second.”
Then: “This victory is produced by everybody.”
Then: “We want to stay connected to things that allow you to play like that.”
A bewildering season moved past the midpoint and produced something we hadn’t yet witnessed — a comprehensive Falcons performance that wasn’t a bad comprehensive Falcons performance. Quinn’s all three phases? They were really good against an opponent that nearly made the Super Bowl last year and could make it this time. (Though Brees, who’s 40, looked as shaky Sunday as he had in January’s playoffs.)
If nothing else — and it’s entirely possible there won’t be much else good from these Falcons — they offered a glimpse as to why we’d believed this team would be capable of making the playoffs. Of being 2-7, Ryan said, “Our backs are against the wall,” and that’s sugarcoating it. But in a building that has been a house of horrors for this annual visitor, against an opponent that loves to gig the Dirty Birds, they acted as if they owned the place. You wonder why it took nine games to play like this, but you’re glad for their sake they finally did.