Falcons are different team since bye, just as Quinn wanted

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan celebrates his touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper for a 21-0 lead over San Francisco during the first quarter Sunday. The Falcons won easily 41-13 at the Georgia Dome. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan celebrates his touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper for a 21-0 lead over San Francisco during the first quarter Sunday. The Falcons won easily 41-13 at the Georgia Dome. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

A few weeks ago, as the Falcons were coming out of their bye week, as visions of ruination bounced around the craniums of a scarred city’s sports fans, Dan Quinn talked about his team’s need to embrace the moment.

"You know the old quote, 'How bad do you want it?'" the Falcons' coach said. "That's the message. That's the mindset. The talent on all of the teams isn't changing now. The coaching isn't changing. So why do some teams get better?"

Or, in the case of too many seasons of Falcons past, worse.

But since the bye, since those words, since the Falcons left everybody wondering about their finishing kick after a 24-15 loss at Philadelphia, fears have diminished. Significantly.

Consider: They would be 4-0 since the bye if not for the bizarre and unimaginable finish of a “pick-2” against Kansas City.

“Pick-2. What a kick in the (crotch),” Quinn said Sunday, still in disbelief.

But …

“The bye came at the right time for us. That was a rough performance at Philadelphia. When we came back, we told the team, ‘This is our chance to go for it.’ You see what they’ve done. You see the connection they have with each other. They want to do right for the other guy. That means a lot to me.”

The Falcons hammered San Francisco 41-13 on Sunday, leading 21-0 after one quarter and laughing all the way. This comes a week after dismembering the Los Angeles Rams 42-14. California creaming.

Two straight weeks and Matt Ryan was able to watch the end from the sideline. “I didn’t really get hit the entire day,” he said.

Two straight weeks, with wins by a combined score of 83-27 despite Julio Jones (sprained toe) being on the sideline.

Aldrick Robinson — the fifth-string receiver — had four receptions covering 111 yards. The offense netted 550 yards. So much for being handicapped.

The defense, punctured by a season-ending injury to Desmond Trufant, as well as missing Adrian Clayborn, Jalen Collins, Derrick Shelby and Sean Weatherspoon for all or part of this season, has held together (shutting out the 49ers for three of four quarters).

The often-benched Ra’Shede Hageman even had a sack Sunday. And the heavens open.

“It’s not like we came up with a new magic formula,” tackle Jake Matthews said. “We regrouped and went back and worked on things that we had been doing and DQ has been harping on since the day he got here. Since the bye, we’ve done things that we said we were going to do in practice.”

“We’re missing our leader (Trufant), we’re out there with backups, but you see it doesn’t matter,” safety Ricardo Allen said.

San Francisco has lost 13 straight. The Rams are such a mess that they fired their coach, Jeff Fisher, the day after last week’s game. So, no, these two wins don’t automatically elevate the Falcons to Super Bowl status.

But it says something about the Falcons in general and Quinn in particular. These are opponents the Falcons too often in the past let hang around, maybe even lost to.

Quinn has connected with his players and they with him. He also is finding himself as a head coach. The 17-16 loss at San Francisco last season was a red flag in his early tenure. The Falcons trailed a bad 49ers team 17-13 with three minutes left when Quinn oddly chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line rather than go for it. His hope was that the defense would hold and the Falcons would get the ball back.

Big mistake. The 49ers ran out the clock. Quinn called it a teaching moment, saying, “I’ve had to learn from a number of the mistakes I’ve made.”

That loss was the second in a six-game skid that would bury the Falcons’ season. They finished 8-8. They’re 9-5 this season. This isn’t that team and Quinn is not the same coach.

“Everybody doesn’t have to play perfect but we have to play really good together,” Quinn said after his post-game news conference. “When we came back, that was the messaging we were trying to get to. It’s out there for us.”

The day started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem. His teammates bypassed kneeling after the opening kickoff and went straight to playing dead.

The Falcons led 21-0 before the first quarter was over. They had 319 yards in offense in the first half, led 28-13 and would have scored touchdowns on all five of their possessions if Devonta Freeman hadn’t fumbled on the 49ers’ 1-inch line on first and goal.

Freeman more than made amends for that: He rushed for 139 yards and three touchdowns and the Falcons totaled a season-high 248 behind an offensive line that ate the 49ers’ defense whole.

This wasn’t nearly the same San Francisco team that came to the Georgia Dome for the 2012 NFC title game, rallied and won. Kaepernick is a shadow of his former self. Jim Harbaugh is now a hero in Ann Arbor. His first replacement, Jim Tomsula, was fired and Chip Kelly, former genius, has established a franchise record for infamy with this losing streak.

But’s that not the Falcons’ problem, nor was it their focus Sunday.

“Every week is going to be tough, but you throw the records out and just go battle,” Quinn said. “You don’t make it about the other team’s record. You make it about you and your effort.”

They’re doing that.

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