Bradley’s Buzz: In a major test, the Falcons fumble but don’t stumble

Two months from now, we might look back and say, “Why was that a big deal?” The Buccaneers have lost three of four. They play in Buffalo on Thursday night, not that the Bills look so hot, either. Two months from now, maybe two weeks from now, the doings in Tampa could seem just another given Sunday.

That wasn’t, however, how it felt in the moment. The Falcons arrived at the stadium off Dale Mabry Highway after an egregious loss that saw Desmond Ridder, for whom every Sunday has become a referendum, throw three second-half interceptions. They’d lost three of four themselves. Lose in Tampa and they’d be a game and a half back in a bad division.

They didn’t lose, winning 16-13 They didn’t trail. They were the better team – then again, they were the better team against Washington, and that ended badly – and this time they took care of the ball when it mattered.

Those three words – “when it mattered” – are required because, according to ESPN via Elias, the Falcons became the first team since Arizona in 2004 (against the mighty Falcons of Jim Mora, FYI) to lose three red-zone fumbles. All were Ridder’s, albeit of different sorts. One came on a sack, another on a snap. The third came as the quarterback was about to make it 20-10.

Had the Bucs won at the end – down 13-10, they faced first-and-goal at the 8 inside the final minute – we’d be having a different discussion, an escalation of last week’s, today. But no. David Onyemata sacked Baker Mayfield. Tampa Bay could only tie. Ridder twice found Kyle Pitts. Younghoe Koo, who doesn’t miss, didn’t miss. First-place Falcons!

Those seeking a “yeah, but” have the easy hook of Ridder’s fumbles. This marked his third three-turnover Sunday in four games. Great as he is, Koo can’t bail out his QB every week – though the kicker has booted home the winner in the final minute of three of this team’s four victories. And Ridder, for all his wobbles, has led three game-winning drives.

For all those wobbles, progress is ongoing. In the season’s first four games, Ridder threw for 115, 237, 201 and 191 yards. In the past three, he has thrown for 329, 307 and 250. He’s being asked to do more of what a real NFL quarterback – as opposed to a guy taking snaps – is supposed to do. He has taken snaps with the game on the line and made the requisite plays.

Pitts had 11 receptions over the first four games; he has 14 over the past three. (Still not enough, but getting there.) The gifted Bijan Robinson, who was ill, gained 3 yards Sunday. The other Falcons accounted for 398. That’ll do.

Amid the impassioned debate re: Ridder, a splendid story is being written in invisible ink. A team that hadn’t played defense this century ranks fourth among NFL teams in yards against, ninth in points. The Falcons haven’t faced the Chiefs or the Dolphins, but still. Detroit and Jerod Goff managed 20 points, Jacksonville and Trevor Lawrence 23. The best QBs on the schedule are in the rear-view mirror.

As heartening as Sunday’s result was, this is also a moment for caution. The Falcons won on Koe’s kick at the end against Houston and laid an egg the next week. They next play in Nashville against the 2-4 Titans. Lose there and it’s back to .500.

The Falcons, though, just won on the road against a division opponent with a winning record. A good team takes such a victory and runs with it. I’ve thought for a while this could be a good team. Here’s where it gets to prove me right.

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