The Falcons grab their biggest win under Quinn

In a game that might have sent another season due south – and not just to Tampa for a game Thursday night; we’re speaking figuratively here – the Falcons showed us something. They showed us they could stop a good team with a great quarterback. They showed us they could fashion one of the most exquisitely managed drives ever. They showed us they aren’t last year’s Birds.

The Falcons took the ball with 3:58 remaining, having just fallen behind by six points. Their mission was twofold. They had to score a touchdown, duh, but they also couldn’t leave enough time for Aaron Rodgers to respond. They’d seen him conjure up a field goal in 27 seconds at the end of this first half. They needed points, but they also needed to take their sweet time.

Matt Ryan threw passes on 11 consecutive plays. Not one of his nine completions went to Julio Jones. The longest gain – 13 yards to Justin Hardy – came on the second. The Falcons allowed the final seconds before the two-minute warning to tick away. By then they were at the Packers’ 24 and trying to slow themselves. Inside these final two minutes, a trailing NFL team was actually huddling.

“Matt managed the game,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We didn’t have to rush. Knowing the quarterback on the other side was on point (had something to do with it).”

Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy got away with not calling a timeout to save time at the end of the second quarter. He was surely torn with burning one here – he had two remaining – but did not. It was almost with reluctance that Ryan found Mohamed Sanu at full stretch in the end zone at 0:31. Yeah, the Falcons had their precious lead. But Rodgers had half a minute.

Here, though, is where we draw the line in this game and maybe in Quinn’s reign as coach. Rodgers embarrassed his defense in the first half. The Packers led 24-19 and got the ball first after the break. Another touchdown and the lead would have been double figures. And here, of all times, the team without a pass rush mustered a pass rush.

Green Bay’s first two possessions of the second half ended with Adrian Clayborn sacking Rodgers. The Falcons were blitzing – “We knew we had to find some way to affect the quarterback better,” Quinn said – but much of this heavy lifting came from the front four.

Two Green Bay punts changed the game. The Falcons nosed back ahead. When finally Rodgers regained his mojo, the home side was positioned to answer with one score. Which it did. Then its defense needed to make a 31-second stand. Which it did.

Rodgers found Jeff Janis for seven yards. Then he overthrew Jordy Nelson deep. If that’s a completion, the Packers probably win. It wasn’t, and they didn’t. Sub cornerback C.J. Goodwin batted down a third-down throw. Fourteen seconds remained. One last time, Rodgers dropped back. One last time, the Falcons flushed him from the pocket. One last time he threw, only to nobody in particular. if it was an oddly subdued finish to a frantic game, the Falcons didn’t care. They’d won 33-32.

If you want to call it the biggest victory under Quinn, go right ahead. The Falcons entered having lost twice at the bitter end. Falling to Green Bay – which was missing Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb and nearly all its running backs – would have dropped them to 4-4 with consecutive road games upcoming. If they were going to beat the Packers, it had to be on a day like this. If they’re going to a playoff team, they had to start acting like one.

“We wanted a game like this,” said Quinn, meaning close all the way. As night fell on the A-T-L, this team and its coach could rest a bit easier: This inspection revealed that these Falcons have the requisite complement of guts – and some talent to boot. We knew about this raging offense. What we didn’t know was if this defense could hold Mr. Discount Double Check to one second-half touchdown. Now we do.

A big-time game was won by a team that has renewed reason to feel it’s becoming big-time. This was the kind of victory that teams playing in January invariably reference as a touchstone.