The bye in the schedule did not divide the Falcons’ season in perfect halves, coming 10 games in, but it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time on the NFL calendar.
Things don’t get really serious in this league until temperatures fall and Super Bowl contenders rise and every other team topples over like cheap garden gnomes. The regular season is defined by the final six weeks. What separates man from gnome?
“The enthusiasm for the moment,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “You know the old quote, ‘How bad do you want it?’ That’s the message. That’s the mindset.”
Is Quinn oversimplifying this? All professional athletes should be driven for this moment. To suggest a team just needs to “want to it more” than the other sounds trite and isn’t very deep.
“It’s not deep,” Quinn said. “But not all teams have that. Is it confidence? Sometimes. Is it, ‘Do we belong?’ The best teams I’ve been a part of got better as they went along. Think about it. The talent on all of the teams isn’t changing a lot now. The coaching isn’t changing a lot now. So why do some teams get better?”
Quinn makes a point. Many are quick to point out the Falcons’ flaws, but they’re no different than every team in that respect. That’s not to say teams don’t have varying degrees of weaknesses. But the Falcons’ most significant playoff collapses in recent years — blowing big leads against Seattle (a win) and San Francisco (a loss) in 2012 and getting pancaked at home by Green Bay in 2010 — seemed more about players melting down in unison than it was a specific team weakness, like the offensive and defensive lines.
There are three teams playing at a level above all others now: Dallas, Seattle, New England. The Falcons are in that next group of a dozen teams. They have a seemingly favorable schedule, with four of their last six games coming at home and five of six against teams with losing records.
Their ceiling is high.
But the Falcons are perpetually teetering, like rocking back on a kitchen chair. They’re 6-4 and coming off their worst game of the season at Philadelphia. “It’s the only game we got beat in all three phases,” said Quinn, and it’s not the way any team wants to go into a bye.
The Falcons are only one game ahead of Tampa Bay in the NFC South. It’s obvious what the default position of most emotionally scarred fans is going to be.
When players reported Monday, Quinn asked players in a team meeting if they watched any games during the off week.
“I said, ‘What did you notice?’ One player said the physicality of one team. Another said finishing. Another said, ‘The tackling was bad.’ There weren’t any examples of things related to scheme or, ‘I saw this offense do that play.’ It was more about a mindset.”
He looked around the room and said he challenged each player: “What do you want to get better at? What does the person next to you want to get better at and can you help him get there? What about your unit?”
“This a restart,” he said.
Assuming health, the Falcons should be fine on offense, even with the recent loss of tight end Jacob Tamme. The team has only eight turnovers (sixth fewest in the league) after having 30 last season (fifth most). The offensive line, the running game, receivers and quarterback Matt Ryan are far ahead of where they were a year ago in this scheme.
On defense, the pass rush is better, even if inconsistent. Pass coverage and anticipation of plays is getting better. The defense’s biggest question moving forward will be the impact of cornerback Desmond Trufant’s pectoral injury, which he will attempt to play through. The Falcons already have lost two depth players, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and end Derrick Shelby for the season.
“We’ve shown we’re at our best when the speed is flying,” Quinn said of the defense. “But there’s been games when I felt we were overthinking.”
Rookie safety Keanu Neal, who has quickly become a centerpiece of that defense, said, “Our opportunity is there to do special things.”
Tackle Ryan Schraeder said Quinn’s comments Monday struck a chord with him.
“This is only my fourth year, but I’ve realized over the last couple of years that the good players realize, ‘Hey, it’s getting late in the season, I need to get back to my small details.’ That’s what separates the good teams. I think this year everybody’s ready to go. You can sense it. Last year we had to learn how to keep that focus.”
This week, it’s Arizona, which was expected to be a contender in the NFC, but has fallen to 4-5-1 and is scrambling to save its season. But Carson Palmer remains one of the league’s better quarterbacks, the Cardinals lead the league in total defense, and the Falcons don’t have a late-season resume that screams, “We got this.”
So we watch.
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