The Atlanta Falcons just beat a team that played for the NFC title in January by 17 points. They’re 1-0 in the NFC South with five divisional games remaining, three of those at home. In theory, they could finish 9-7, which could lift them within sight of the second wild card, which could mean …
Dan Quinn, coach of the year!
Or: Dan Quinn, coach of the half-year!
Or: Raheem Morris, coach of the century!
For the record, let me state here and now that the sentiments offered above do not constitute a prediction. Two games earlier, these same Falcons lost at home by 27 points to the team that won the NFC title. Until Sunday, these Falcons had gone 55 days without winning. There’s every chance that all winning in New Orleans did was mess up their Round 1 draft pick come April.
The Falcons are 2-7. Thirteen NFC teams have won more games. (There are 16 NFC teams.) FiveThirtyEight still assigns them a less than one percent chance of making the playoffs. That needle hasn’t moved. That said …
Something moved Sunday. The Falcons dominated a 7-1 team that had just gotten Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara back from injury. The league’s second-worst defense – going by Football Outsiders’ rankings – held the Saints of Brees/Kamara/Michael Thomas without a touchdown in the Superdome. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the 13-point spread was the largest in the history of this bitter rivalry, which on Sunday reached its centennial game. But the Saints didn’t cover. They got smothered.
If the Falcons can replicate that performance, they’ll win more games. (Before Sunday, we weren’t sure they’d win again.) Therein hangs the question: Was that the one-off to end all one-offs, or was it — finally — a sign of brighter tomorrows?
The pragmatist in me concedes that a good team doesn’t become 1-7 without a major injury to its quarterback. Losing Matt Ryan for one game doesn’t count as major; besides, they were about to be 1-6 when he got tangled with Aaron Donald. And it wasn’t as if those seven losses were a string of last-second undoings. They’d been beaten by double figures four times. They’d been outscored — this stat again — by 94 points in the first half. They looked, in a word, awful.
Thing was, the Falcons weren’t supposed to be awful. They’re not Miami, not Washington — although their record wasn’t dissimilar. The Falcons were supposed to be pretty good at worst. But they no-showed so many times — in Minneapolis on Opening Day, in Indianapolis over the first half, in Houston over the second, not to mention three egregious home losses — that there seemed nothing fluky about their collapse. They were 1-7 on merit.
Then, coming off a bye and the latest reassignment of Raheem Morris, the Falcons left Brees and Co. in the dust. If you can do that to this team on that field with this quarterback … well, is any remaining game unwinnable?
Hold-thy-horses time. One victory isn’t a trend. In the grand scheme of this season, this one victory was a howling aberration. The only reason to believe the Falcons might have a closing burst in them is the reason we were stupefied by them being 1-7: They have a lot of good players. On Sunday – credit where it’s due – those players were well-prepared and well-coached.
Sunday’s result might say more about the Saints than the Falcons. Saints fans — you probably know two dozen of them — tend to get really sassy really fast, and sometimes their team does, too. (Why does Sean Payton work in the Superdome? It’s the only building large enough to house his ego.) The Saints were likewise coming off a bye, but theirs was different. The Falcons weren’t sure if they’d have the same coaches when play resumed; the Saints were thinking, “We’re 7-1 with Brees missing five starts; Super Bowl, baby!”
I’ve mentioned this a time or two, but here it is again: Right now, I’d take Ryan over Brees. The latter missed throws that he always makes – or used to make. He seemed skittish. The Falcons amassing six where’d-those-come-from sacks had much to do with it, but Brees’ hesitation contributed. He wasn’t himself, and here we note that he’ll turn 41 in January. This might be his new self. If the Saints lose again to the Falcons on Thanksgiving night, the hue and cry for Teddy Bridgewater as No. 1 quarterback will commence.
We’ll let the Saints worry about that. Our concern is the Falcons, who just made things — to invoke Arthur M. Blank’s postgame phrase — “very confusing.” If they’re capable of playing that way every week, how many more games can they win? And if the answer’s five and they finish 7-9, will that be enough for Blank to keep Quinn? Or will he just make the apparently transformative Morris the head coach and be done with it?
But – and this is a massive “but” – if they’re capable playing that way every week, why’d they need half a season to do it? Bad coaching? Bad attitude? Remember, last year’s Falcons finished 7-9 after closing with three victories over lousy teams. The New Year’s Eve purge of coordinators was evidence that 7-9 wasn’t seen as good enough. Would the folks who work in Flowery Branch view another 7-9 differently? Would they forget 1-7 happened?
The one thing 1-7 did was offer clarity, or so we thought. We’d seen half a season. What more did we need? The Falcons stunk, period. Then they routed the Saints, and now we’re going, “Hmmm.” As the rich man said: It’s very confusing.
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