Never mind fade — Falcons look like Super Bowl team

On the first day of the new year, when Atlanta sports fans could again reflect on championship-free 12 months, when the Falcons commemorated the final regular season game in the Georgia Dome by celebrating the legends of their title-less past, we witnessed potential.

Potential for something new.

Potential for something special.

Potential for a better ending.

The Falcons put a bow on a regular season with a 38-32 win over the New Orleans Saints Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Don’t be fooled by the relative closeness of the score. It was 35-13 before halftime, when everybody stopped paying attention.

They scored touchdowns on their first five possessions. If sympathy vote was taken at the time, the Falcons might have allowed them to use a 12th defender.

“That was just fun to be a part of,” Mohamed Sanu said.

This team is ascending at a time when Falcons past have gone splat. They locked up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They secured a first-round bye and some needed rest, particularly for injured players like Vic Beasley Jr., who left the game in the first quarter with what’s believed to be a labrum injury but later returned.

The next time we see this team, they will be playing a survivor from the NFC wild-card round next week in the Georgia Dome, which lives to see another football game.

The rest of us can use that time to stare with amazement at their offensive numbers, the way historians look at Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza and wonder, “How did they do that?”

This is a team that is good enough to go to the Super Bowl.

This is a team that is good enough to win the Super Bowl.

The defense is flawed and certainly wasn’t impressive in the final quarter, when New Orleans managed a pulse and scored three touchdowns (no doubt infuriating some “they’ll cover the seven” bettors in sports books). But the unit has made plays when it really has needed to and the offense again looked unstoppable.

Beasley, who watched most of the five touchdowns from the sideline, said of the offense, “That just kind of sums up their season. What they did was remarkable.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank said back in May he believed this was a playoff team. Some chuckled. But he said Sunday that projection was real, not meant as a push from the executive suite.

“I really did (believe that),” he said after Sunday’s game. “I thought the team progressed a lot over the year before and I felt the momentum was there. I saw the work that Matt (Ryan) was putting in. I saw the work Kyle Shanahan was putting in with Matt. I saw the work we were doing on the defensive side of the ball and the draft picks and the free agents. I felt very good about the team. But this is a tough league.”

The Falcons returned from the bye after a 24-15 loss at Philadelphia that was all kinds of ugly. They played better than they had at any point in the season. They beat up Arizona 38-19. They have won four other games by scores of 42-14, 41-13, 33-16, 38-32.

The only loss in the post-bye, six-game span came to Kansas City 29-28 following an improbable, illogical, even Falcons-unimaginable — say it with me — pick-2. Otherwise they would be on a six-game winning streak.

They beat last year’s Super Bowl teams: Carolina twice and Denver. They beat Oakland. They beat Green Bay. They destroyed their rivals from the Bayou twice.

Never mind the final score Sunday. They drop-kicked New Orleans into the offseason.

The league’s best offense, which seems likely to get Shanahan a head coaching job, scored touchdowns on all five of its first-half possessions. It was enough to almost make the average fan take pity on the opponent, except, well, it was the Saints.

First drive: four plays, 68 yards, touchdown (7-yard pass to Tevin Coleman).

Second drive: 75-yard touchdown run by Devonta Freeman.

Third drive: Fade to Julio Jones in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Fourth drive: Mohamed Sanu 10-yard touchdown.

Fifth drive: Justin Hardy 7-yard score.

Uncle.

Matt Ryan put up cartoon numbers in the first two quarters: 17 for 19, 235 yards, four touchdown passes to four different receivers, a 157.8 rating (which is the ceiling).

The 35-point first half was the most allowed by New Orleans in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, which Payton will no doubt keep in mind as he considers fielding offers for other jobs.

Fans chanted, “MVP, MVP” with each Ryan touchdown pass. He certainly has made it hard to argue against him. He finished the day with 331 yards passing, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a rating of 139.9. His 38 touchdowns vs. seven interceptions and franchise record 4,944 yards might be enough to push him to that honor.

Count Michael Vick, who was among the former Falcons in the building, among the impressed.

Vick, who was loudly cheered in his return to the Georgia Dome, said Ryan "has just taken his game to another level. Over the last three or four years, he's been the consummate teammate, the best player on the field, the leader on the field. You can tell he's in total control. This team goes as he goes."

No doubt.

This franchise has won seven division titles. They have reached the NFC championship three times and made it to the Super Bowl once in 1998.

Nobody assumes success in Atlanta. They shouldn’t now. But the ceiling looks high.