Cowboys, Quinn turn Falcons inside-out

ARLINGTON, Texas – For sheer psychological theater, there is nothing quite like a Falcons-Cowboys game. For here is where delusion meets defeatism, played within two of the leading mine-is-bigger-than-yours palaces in American sport.

On one side, the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Mirage. Here is a franchise and a fan base nourished by the hardtack of ancient glories, and yet still somehow managing to remain fat and sassy. Their haughtiness is unbridled by a 21st Century of mediocrity. To say the Cowboys are the centerpiece of the NFL is like saying Greece is the cornerstone of the modern world. Or like putting Frankie Avalon on the cover of an online edition of “Tiger Beat.”

The five world championships are magnificent. But let’s consider the inconvenient truth about life as a Cowboy since, say, 2000. Over that long period, Dallas has won only marginally more games than the Falcons (Cowboys 181-162, Falcons 172-172-1). The poor disparaged Falcons have made two more postseason appearances over that time (8 to 6) and had significantly more success (6-8 in the postseason since 2000, compared to 1-6 for the ‘Boys).

Then, on the other side, the Falcons. Awaiting a flight to Big D from Atlanta, a Falcons fan and a Cowboys fan were trading barbs. How, wondered the man in Falcons red and black, could someone from Georgia be a Cowboys fan? But it was when the question was turned on him – how could anyone from Georgia stay with the Falcons? – that there came one of the most profound and perfect explanations of Falcon fandom ever uttered.

“Might as well ask an Eskimo why he likes snow. It’s all I know,” said the resigned lifelong Falcon.

These two contrasting case studies intersected here Sunday, making for an ugly mismatch. This was the Falcons faltering in every phase. And it was the Cowboys on a mission after having been dissected a week ago by Denver.

Here was a reality check on how far a 4-5 team has yet to go to catch up to a quality opponent (yes, give Dallas this much due, it is looking as complete as it has in a long time). Let’s stack high all the bad that was complicit in the Cowboys 43-3 victory.

Throwing for only 117 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had the lowest-rated (21.4) performance of his career, outdoing the 29.6 he put up as a rookie against Tampa Bay. That just one week after he was the NFC’s offensive player of the week vs. New Orleans. The mind reels.

“Hopefully it will be another 13 years before I have a rating like that,” Ryan said, preparing Falcons fans for a real stinker in 2034.

One other unpleasant nugget: This was the worst loss to the Cowboys in 28 meetings, by a goodly amount. You have to go back to the Falcons first two years of existence – 1966 and ‘67, back when the Atlanta franchise still had its baby teeth – to find a pair of 30-point defeats.

Why, it was almost as if the Falcons offense was trying to work against a defense with some prior, intimate knowledge of its every weakness. (Foreshadowing alert).

Played in an AT&T Stadium that was a forebear of the Falcons own Mercedes-Benz Stadium – with the retractable roof, the sensory overloading video board, the wall of glass beyond one endzone, the setting was quite familiar. Much like a Falcons home game, only with people.

Sunday’s game hadn’t even started yet before they were flashing on that monstrous video screen a replay of last year’s most embarrassing Falcons moment (the first atop a long list). Behold once more their kickoff return team frozen with indecision, watching a Dallas onside kick spin like a dreidel, allowing the Cowboys CJ Goodwin to pounce upon it. That uncontested recovery, with 1:49 left, led to a Dallas winning field goal in Atlanta. And not too long after that the dismissal of head coach Dan Quinn.

But the NFL is much like your neighborhood McDonald’s – they’re forever looking for help. And Quinn quickly found reemployment, going back to his roots to try to restore a battered defense belonging to these Cowboys.

Turns out that Quinn is still orchestrating Falcons losses, just from the other sideline as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. His defense played like an avenging army Sunday, limiting the Falcons to just 1-for-11 on third down conversions and 0-for-2 on fourth down. A resoundingly great day for Quinn, awarded a game ball Sunday for his role. Isn’t that nice?

Ryan, who met briefly with his old head coach pregame, just long enough to exchange hugs and partially sincere good luck wishes, was magnanimous in defeat. He’s had his share of practice. “Credit to them, credit to (Quinn),” Ryan said. “I thought he did a great job putting those guys in position to be successful. I thought Dan coached a really good game.”

This one was over from the time the Falcons failed to convert on their first fourth-down attempt in the first quarter and the Cowboys converted twice on their way to touchdown drives that built the lead to 21-3 by midway in the second quarter.

Making the big plays at the big moments is always helpful. Oh, who are we kidding? In this one, the Cowboys made all the plays. Their quarterback Dak Prescott completed 77% of his 31 passes, including two touchdowns to an apparently uncoverable CeeDee Lamb. Every facet contributed to the rout, including special teams (Dallas blocked a punt for a touchdown to close out the first half and build its lead to 36-3).

It all gets blurry from there. This much is clear, nothing happened Sunday to alter the dynamics of the franchises involved. Both delusions and defeatism thrive on days like this.