Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan reacts to a play against the 49ers during the second half in an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co

There could be a trophy in the Falcons’ future

Not quite four years ago, the Falcons and 49ers met at the Georgia Dome for the NFC title. The 49ers won, barely. Both teams would soon get much worse. One has gotten really good again. Guess which.

If you’ve ever had a hankering to know how it would be if the NFL’s No. 1 scoring team faced the last-place defense … well, Sunday was the game for you. By the time San Francisco ran its ninth play, it trailed by 21 points. The Falcons had outgained the visitors 157 yards to 12. Students of bitter history will recall that the Falcons also hurtled to a three-score lead over San Fran three years and 11 months ago. This game was not that game.

After 14 minutes and 20 seconds, the Falcons were on pace to win 88-0, which would have been a record. And, to be honest, it didn’t appear out of the question. These 49ers last won on Sept. 12. They play the Rams next week in what could be the worst game ever. Those not-worthies have supplied the Falcons’ opposition the past two weeks. Aggregate score of those games: Atlanta 83, Left Coast 31. Where’s Jerry Glanville with his California Trophy?

But the Falcons have done more than thrash two wretched opponents. They’ve won breezing without getting anything from Julio Jones, their most gifted played. They’re beating bad teams the way a good team is supposed to beat bad teams.

In the league of Any Given Sunday, this doesn’t always happen. That it’s happening for the Falcons suggests this a team that has fought through 14 games — three of them hairbreadth losses — and believes itself capable of anything. No Desmond Trufant for the rest of the year? No Julio for two weeks? No problem. (At least so far.)

Thirteen minutes remained when Levine Toilolo caught a 30-yard pass from Matt Ryan. The score was 31-13 when it happened. We mention it only because Toilolo became the eighth Falcon to make a reception this day, none of them being Julio Jones. For all those times we wondered why Kyle Shanahan didn’t force-feed the ball to No. 11 (especially near the goal line) … well, this is why. Even with Jones getting his yards — as of Sunday’s kickoff, he led the NFL — this offense has become a creation of exquisite balance.

The Falcons finished with 550 yards — 248 rushing, 302 passing. They ran the ball 41 times, threw it 24. That’s as close to an ideal ratio as it gets. (Through three quarters, Ryan’s passer rating was 150. A perfect passer rating would be 158.3.) Excluding a kneel-down to end the first half, every possession — 10 all told — saw the Falcons in Niner territory. For the second consecutive week, Ryan wasn’t need in the fourth quarter.

No, the Falcons won’t see an opponent as flimsy as this again. But they’re resourceful enough to wreak havoc on any opponent. It was only three Sundays ago that the Arizona Cardinals, possessors of the NFL’s No. 1 defense, entered this building. The Falcons mustered 385 yards. They won 38-19.

We stipulate that this isn’t yet a finished product. Dan Quinn has been on the job only 22 months. The Falcons’ defense has grown adroit at inducing turnovers, but it’s not yet the Steel Curtain. (It entered Sunday’s game ranked 28th in yards against.) “We’ve got a long way to go defensively,” Quinn said, but then he started ticking off things he liked.

“I like our run-and-hit capability. The speed of it you feel … ” And the longer he went, the more you thought: Maybe not such a long way after all, for both Quinn’s defense and Quinn’s team.

Asked how close the Falcons are to fitting his grand design, Quinn said: “I think our identity is getting closer. We’re not there yet. But it starts in locker room, how hard you want to play for each other.”

As leery as I am of bromides, especially those about being a band of brothers, I have to confess: These guys do play really, really hard, and not just the Big Names. Familiar with Aldrick Robinson? This journeyman had 111 yards receiving. Know much about Joshua Perkins? This third-string tight end made the biggest catch of the Falcons’ first drive.

This has become a real team, and it’s past the point of collapse. Were that going to happen, it would have been after the narrow losses to San Diego and Seattle. The Falcons stared down Green Bay and routed the Buccaneers in Tampa, and from there it was apparent that the men of Quinn weren’t going away. As galling as the loss to Kansas City on Eric Berry’s pick-2 was, it proved a glancing blow.

The Falcons are again destroying opponents. (Albeit lousy ones, but still.) How many teams look better than this one? How many teams would want any part of these Birds and this offense come January? Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the notion keeps growing that there could be a trophy in this franchise’s future, and not of the California variety.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X