The Falcons met the Lions at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium on Dec. 24, 1989. The Falcons hadn’t won since Nov. 5. They’d seen Marion Campbell – in his second term as head coach – resign after a 20-point Thanksgiving weekend loss to the Jets, who weren’t any good then, either.

The Lions would beat the Falcons 31-24, the home team having trailed 31-10 in the fourth quarter. Barry Sanders rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns. The Falcons’ leading rusher that day – 1,000 Bradley Bonus Points if you remember this – was Keith Jones. He gained 37 yards. As interim coach, Jim Hanifan went 0-4.

The striking number about that game was surely inaccurate. Attendance was announced as 7,792. Actual attendance might have been half that. Partly out of boredom but mostly out of curiosity, this correspondent left the press box and endeavored to interview every patron seated in one lower-bowl section. There were three. All had brought blankets. Two were seated together. The other was by himself. Why, yours truly asked the latter, was he here?

“Got no place else to be,” he said. That stands among the sadder replies any MB question has elicited. The sun was shining that day, but it was cold – hence the blankets – and it was, we underscore, Christmas Eve.

The loss was the Falcons’ seventh in succession. They finished the season 3-13. It was their seventh consecutive losing season. Two players – Ralph Norwood and Brad Beckman – died in separate car crashers 30 days apart.

In the time I’ve been tracking the Falcons, that Christmas Eve game remains among the bleakest of tableaus. Thirty-two years and two days later, the Lions and Falcons met again in this city. This was, I’m happy to report, a sunnier occasion.

Though Football Outsiders’ analytics continue to rate the Falcons as the NFL’s worst team, their record insists they’re not. They arrived at Boxing Day, as it’s known across the pond, at 6-8. They still hold out hope of making the playoffs. Among the league’s bantamweights, the Falcons have held their own. The Lions’ only near-peer is the Jacksonville Jaguars, about whom we say no more. Also of note: Detroit’s No. 1 quarterback, Jared Goff, was on the COVID list, meaning that Tim Boyle, an undrafted free agent, would be making his second pro start

(On Feb. 3, 2019, Goff started a Super Bowl in this building. His path since has been no stairway to heaven. And here we wind on down the road.)

This was the sort of games the 2021 Falcon have gotten skilled at winning, often on a field goal at the end. As settings goes, this wasn’t awful. The sun was shining. The famous retractable roof was indeed retracted. Mercedes-Benz Stadium was more than half-full. The game itself was halfway decent, though it didn’t start that way.

Matt Ryan was sacked three times on the Falcons’ first series. (By the 2-11-1 Lions, we emphasize.) The Falcons were somehow outgained 166 yards to 108 in the first half, but they weren’t outscored. They took a 13-10 lead five minutes into the third quarter. By then, they’d found something that was working and should keep working for … oh, the next decade. They’d taken to throwing the ball to Kyle Pitts.

Of Pitts, coach Arthur Smith said afterward: “He’s just getting started. If he continutes to improve, we’ll see where this thing goes.”

The Falcons finished with 254 yards, 59 below their average. Ryan throwing to Pitts accounted for 102 of those. Ryan threw toward Pitts six times. Pitts caught six passes.

The Lions tied matters at 13 on a halting drive that saw them incur their fifth and sixth false starts of the game. (The Lions are lousy when required, ahem, to line up.) They wouldn’t lead again. Ryan found Pitts for a key first down, which led to Ryan finding Hayden Hurst, another tight end, who’d run a lovely route to the pylon.

Next came a Detroit drive that spanned 10 minutes and 26 seconds … and led to a field goal that left the Lions down 20-16 with 2:38 remaining. If that seemed strange – and it did – we must credit Detroit for hanging close with Boyle at quarterback. They held the ball for 38 minutes and five seconds. They were running it inside the final five minutes, when every other NFL team would have been slinging it.

We must also credit the Lions for knocking the ball from Russell Gage’s hands on a third-and-7 screen that would have clinched the game. The fumble put the Falcons in position to lose one of those Dan Quinn games. But they didn’t. Foyesade Oluokun stepped in front of a Boyle pass – see why Detroit didn’t want him throwing? – with 33 seconds to play. The Falcons won 20-16. They’re 7-2 in one-score games.

Said Smith: “That’s kind of been our ethos. ... We’re trying to build a culture of winning.”

Said Ryan of winning close games: “My first few years, we had a lot of success. The last few years, for whatever reason, we weren’t able to do that. I’m proud of thi s team for staying in games and finding a way to win. Hopefully it’s flowing back that way, and the end of my career can be more like the beginning.”

This wasn’t the greatest game ever played. It was, however, no sad tableau. For the first time this season, the Falcons won in their building. Merry Christmas from a team that shouldn’t be -7-8 but absolutely is.

About the Author

Editors' Picks