The Falcons are 3-4, which is the best you can be after you start 1-4. That’s the good news. The bad news is … well, have you seen anything in two halting home victories that makes you believe a second-half surge is imminent?
Eight days after stopping Tampa Bay on the game's final play, the Falcons secured victory over the Giants on the night's penultimate play. That they were the better side over the fullness of 60 minutes is a faint endorsement. The 1-6 Giants are terrible. They hadn't managed 20 points in four of their first five losses. They got to 20 here, if only just, and had to overcome their own coaching to do it.
The Falcons’ best performer this night was Giorgio Tavecchio, who’s a kicker. He was cut by the Raiders in August. He was signed last week as a temp for Matt Bryant, who hurt himself in booting the clinching 57-yarder against the Buccaneers. Tavecchio kicked three field goals against the Giants, each longer than the one before. His 40-yarder came at the end of the first half. A 50-yarder made it 13-6 at the start of the fourth quarter. His 56-yarder with 1:55 left made it 23-12. His was the greatest performance by a Falcons kicker on a Monday night since Tim Mazzetti, the bootin’ bartender.
Said Matt Ryan, who has had Bryant a helpmate since 2010, of Tavecchio’s last kick: “It was unbelievable. That was good from about 65 yards. It was goin’.”
That it came down to Tavecchio’s foot tells us much about the Falcons’ offense, which mustered 423 yards against a bad defense but managed only two touchdowns. None of the Falcons’ 62 snaps came in the red zone. Ryan – who threw for 379 yards with completions to 10 different receivers – found Marvin Hall off play-action for 47 yards in the second quarter. Tevin Coleman burst 30 yards on third-and-1 in the fourth. Tavecchio aside, that was it.
To their credit, the Falcons did enough to win. The Giants, however, left enough undone to lose this game a half-dozen times. The final score was 23-20, and the Falcons needed to field an onside kick – Julio Jones snagged it – to hang on. It’s hard to imagine an offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and the rookie runner Saquon Barkley not putting up points – hard until you watch Eli Manning, who’s 37 and hasn’t much left. Yet he threw for 399 yards against this defense, which got four sacks but induced no turnovers.
Had Pat Shurmur, now 10-28 as a non-interim NFL coach, not seen two decisions go ka-blooey, the Giants would have had four more points. (Remind me again: What was the final margin?) He had Manning throw on fourth-and-goal from outside the 1-yard line after a telegraphed sweep to Barkley was halted. I tend to believe that coaches should go for it more on fourth-and-short, but the Giants’ offensive line wasn’t knocking the Falcons backward, and Manning’s fourth-down pass went not to Beckham but to Scott Simonson, a backup tight end without a professional touchdown.
So: Three points unbanked. Another would follow. After Barkley scored with 4:47 left to cut the Falcons' lead to 20-12, Shurmur had the Giants go for two. The numbers folks – here's a compelling post from Chase Stuart of Football Perspective – maintain that a team trailing by 14 should always go for two after the first score. I'd argue that kicking the PAT would bring a team within one score with the 2-point option still available after the second touchdown. As it happened, Beckham dropped Manning's pass at the pylon.
So: Four points not scored via kicking. Still there was time for the Giants to score another touchdown – this to Beckham, followed by a successful 2-pointer – but they messed that up, too. With no timeouts left, they ran two snuffed Manning sneaks from the 1. These non-scoring plays ate 36 seconds, meaning that when those eight points finally came, five seconds remained. Even a successful onside kick wouldn’t guaranteed a reasonable field-goal try.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Giants are a mess. They pushed Tom Coughlin, who won two Super Bowls with Manning, aside after the 2015 season. They fired Ben McAdoo after 12 games – the Giants were 2-10 – last year, the franchise having bungled the difficult task of benching Peyton’s younger brother. Now, having hired Shurmur, they look even worse, and by drafting Barkley No. 2 overall they have no quarterback-in-waiting.
Speaking of whom: Barkley touched the ball 23 times and managed 94 total yards. The Falcons’ defense, which has done nothing much this season, did a job on him.
Said Ryan of the defense: “They kind of kept us in the driver’s seat the whole night with their play.”
Of the victory, he offered this: “It was huge for us to get the job done tonight. To inch our way closer to .500 is a good step for us.”
Well, yes. Reality, however, shows that the Falcons arrive at their bye week holding last place in the NFC South. Worse is that, of their nine remaining games, six will be played on foreign soil/turf. Worse still is that they’ve exhausted their home games against division opposition. They’re 2-1 against the NFC South, but it’s 2-1 at home.
As vital as Monday’s victory was, Sunday’s events did them no favors. The Saints won by a point when a Baltimore kicker who’d never missed a PAT missed a PAT. The Panthers rallied from 17 points down with 11 minutes left to win in Philadelphia. The Buccaneers beat Cleveland in overtime on a 59-yard field goal. The Falcons didn’t lose ground in Week 7, but when you’re in last place you need to start gaining.
Those seeking a Statement Game from the home side on Monday night with ESPN in the house – and the roof open! – didn’t get it. The Falcons won, yes, but it would be hard to lose to the Giants right now. The Falcons have won two in a row, yes, but those victories were at home against teams that are a collective 4-9, and the margins of victory were five and three points. I wouldn’t start planning that parade down Peachtree just yet.