On Sunday, the final day in The Year of the Implosion, the Falcons authored a happy repudiation of the theme.
Rather than fold inward on themselves – you know, as did a certain Super Bowl team and one stubborn dome next door in 2017 – the Falcons won their way into the NFL’s survivor pool.
Yes, they are a Wild Card team – the middle seat of the postseason – but they, most importantly, are on board.
It so happened they could have lost and still gotten into the playoffs, once Seattle fell to Arizona. They could have collapsed and crawled, wounded, through an unguarded back door to the next round. Instead, they chose a more dignified entrance.
So much better, for psyche’s sake, that they won their way in. Thanks largely to the antique burled leg of kicker Matt Bryant, said to be 43 years old the last time it was appraised.
“You never want to rely on anyone else. When you allow yourself to be judged on what’s going to happen, that’s much more valuable,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
So much better that it was at the expense of the Carolina Panthers, 22-10, and their quirk-filled quarterback, Cam Newton. There would be no preening or posing Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so near Newton’s old Westlake High School training ground. Merely the kind of misfiring that left in its backwash a question that shouldn’t be too hastily answered by merely looking at the two teams’ place in the standings:
If the playoffs were to start next weekend – which they do, the Falcons traveling to Los Angeles for a Saturday night game against the Rams – who would a conference champ rather play in the first round? The 11-5 Panthers? Or the 10-6 Falcons? Based on Sunday’s evidence, whatever else the Falcons prospects may be, they seemed certainly the more dangerous of the options.
The beating administered by the Falcons could have been more severe, had only they not displayed once more a curious aversion to the end zone. The league’s leading scoring offense a year ago mounted a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession of the game, and then did no such thing again.
Four more Falcons possessions ventured inside the Panthers 20-yard line, but none resulted in a touchdown. That’s where Bryant and his five second-half field goals came in – he was the spackle to the flaws of the red zone offense this day.
Sunday, field goals were enough. “We kept getting points against a really great defense,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “The points continued to add up.” That approach may not work quite so well in a more serious playoff setting.
Bryant, for one, is postseason ready. Sunday, he hit them from precincts near and far – the longest being a 56-yard line drive that would have been good from, well, 57.
“You can always count on him,” Falcons receiver Julio Jones said of his kicker.
Looking forward to the playoffs, Quinn had at his ready the uplifting message for the week to come. “As a group, this toughness, this brotherhood they have is alive and real. They still have stuff to prove.”
Toughness was a lesson here on the final regular-season game. No one of sound mind has questioned the individual toughness of certain key Falcons. Certainly not the quarterback, who just doesn’t take sick days. And the star receiver, while prone to the sort of nuisance issues that beset the most highly-tuned automobiles and athletes, is nobody’s wilting lily. Nor the center, Alex Mack, who played through a calf injury that dogged him during the week.
At the outset, the Panthers tried to lay waste to the skill guys. First it was a full-tilt collision to the ribs of Julio Jones, safety Mike Adams timing him up on a slant. “I pretty much have to be dead not to get up,” Jones would say later.
Then shortly after that hit, it was end Wes Horton attempting to implant Matt Ryan’s chinstrap into his cerebellum. Ryan arose and ended the day with 317 passing yards, enough to surpass 4,000 for the seventh time in his career.
As for the other noted, former MVP quarterback in the building, Newton throws a football like the modern slugger swings a bat. His misses can be many and prodigious, great gusts of inaccuracy. But when he connects, it can be semi-majestic. All the lies between the extremes is quickly forgotten.
Bad Cam showed up to begin Sunday, missing on his first nine passes, most of those attempts as close to entering the flight path at Hartsfield-Jackson as they were to being caught.
Good Cam made a cameo appearance, completing his next seven passes on the way to a 78-yard touchdown drive that tied the game 7-7 at the half.
But Bad Cam was not to be denied. He finished with three interceptions while compiling a veritable scrapbook of ugly throws.
That’s a them problem.
On the year’s last day, the Falcons bucked the storyline of 2017 and will play on into 2018. “You get in the playoffs, the sky’s the limit,” Freeman insisted.
Reaching the sky remains a rather thorny question, but at least it is in full view today for a team moving on with its head up.