Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder wouldn’t be taking any victory laps after leading qteam to a 21-19 come-from-behind win over the Texans Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We know this because coach Arthur Smith assured it.

“If we all of the sudden think we’ve got all the answers today and we don’t continue to improve and grow, well, you’ll get humbled pretty quick,” Smith said. “So we’re not going to take any victory laps, but very pleased. It was great to see his response this week.”

After a week in which his status as the Falcons’ quarterback of the future – and present – was widely questioned after his uninspiring play in back-to-back losses, Ridder delivered the best game of his young career, completing 28 of 37 passes for 329 yards (the completions and yardage were career highs) and leading the Falcons on a 56-yard game-winning field-goal drive in the final two minutes.

“That was really one of my first true two-minute drives to go win the game or whatever it was,” Ridder said. “It was calm, cool, collected, didn’t rush anything, didn’t try to force anything, just played it as it came.”

Sunday may prove to be the moment that the Falcons fans will look back on as the day that Ridder proved beyond a doubt that he could be the guy, perhaps even definitively would be the guy.

“Obviously, there was a lot of talk out there,” Falcons backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “He silenced it.”

With Houston trying to deny the Falcons’ run game and put the game in his hands, he confidently and accurately rifled shots downfield. He managed the line of scrimmage confidently. He made plays when they absolutely needed to be made. He looked like the version that Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot evidently saw when they decided in the offseason to make him the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback.

“I thought he did a great job all week preparing,” Smith said. “Going back to last week, when you get in those things (of facing criticism), it’s what’s your response? How do you handle adversity? You wouldn’t want the adversity, but that’s going to tell you a lot about people, players and coaches.”

But more than that, the Falcons turned in their most complete game of the season, the most convincing win of their three thus far. They outgained Houston by more than 130 yards, 447-313. The defense held firm when the offense’s wheels were spinning in the mud. The offense answered when the defense finally gave way. Smith dialed up plays to spread the ball around to the wealth of playmakers that the Falcons have boasted of but not effectively utilized. The depth that Fontenot has assembled was difference-making. The trustworthy Younghoe Koo did his thing in the end.

The team that Falcons fans have been hoping could finally return to the playoffs took shape before a home crowd that was unengaged for much of the afternoon – perhaps unwilling to entrust its heart and lungs to a team that had managed to score one touchdown in the previous two games – but roused to fervor by game’s end.

“You win as a team,” Smith said. “I can’t say that enough. And if you have the right mindset, it’s not three independent units, it’s a team.”

There’s always room for caveats. In most NFL games, 21 points isn’t going to be enough to win. The offense stopped itself with back-to-back turnovers – one of which left the defense to take the field with the ball on the Falcons’ 30-yard line – and center Drew Dalman cost the team a field goal try with a senseless unnecessary roughness penalty in the second quarter. The Falcons went six consecutive possessions without a point.

Also, the Texans brought the same 2-2 record to MBS that the Falcons did.

But, the Falcons won as they can. A defense that increasingly looks like the real deal asserted itself. As the Falcons offense labored after a first-quarter touchdown, the defense kept the game close, keeping a Texans team that had averaged 29 points and 402 yards in its past three games out of the end zone until the final two minutes of the game.

It was at its best in the second half after the Falcons offense fumbled the ball away on consecutive possessions, once giving the Texans the ball on the Falcons’ 30. On that possession, the defense didn’t give up a first down and limited Houston to a field goal. On the next drive, the Texans went three-and-out, the stop that set the stage for the Falcons’ go-ahead touchdown on Ridder’s six-yard pass to running back Bijan Robinson that he caught against his back.

“I think after that, I said Bijan was the best football player I’ve seen,” said linebacker Nate Landman, who led the defense with seven tackles and had a crucial pressure of Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud. “What an incredible play.”

That may be the Falcons’ path. The Falcons’ defense has held its first five opponents below their season total offense averages (going into Sunday’s games). Sunday, the celebrated rookie Stroud was held to his lowest passing yardage total (249) and yards-per-attempt average (7.1) since his career debut game and at one point in the second half threw incomplete on seven consecutive passes.

Perhaps they can win by keeping games close and then looking to Robinson to make use of his ridiculous talent and, perhaps, to Ridder to make plays like he did Sunday, completing passes to 10 different targets.

The Falcons and their quarterback took a step forward Sunday. Which direction will the next steps lead?

Not towards a victory lap, we know that much.

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