The first half of the Falcons’ schedule saw them author one convincing performance – on Sept. 11 against Green Bay. They opened the season’s second half with another. They beat Dallas 27-7 and made Jerry Jones’ crew look inept. If this wasn’t quite the Falcons at their 2016 best, it trumped anything we’d seen in two months.
The star of the game wasn’t Matt Ryan or Julio Jones, though both were good, but Adrian Clayborn, a 29-year-old defensive end who entered with 22½ career sacks. He mustered six this day, breaking the franchise record of five. Clayborn whirled around poor Chaz Green, the sub left tackle, as if he wasn’t there, which he often wasn’t. The Cowboys scored the game’s first touchdown and nothing more.
Whenever Dallas put two first downs together, it would then get penalized or lose track of Clayborn, which is how a 10-7 game after 30 minutes became an out-and-out rout. The final sack didn’t involve an actual knockdown; Clayborn simply ran past Dak Prescott and batted the ball from his hand. Strip sack. Sixth sack. Holy mackerel.
The Clayborn-fueled victory came, it must be said, at a propitious moment. The reigning NFC champs had again fallen to .500, with the meat of their schedule upcoming. A loss Sunday would have made winning in Seattle – never an easy feat – next week a must. Now there’s a bit of wiggle room. The Falcons are 5-4. If they win five of their final seven, they should make the playoffs. If they play like this, they’re capable of winning five of their final seven.
Through eight games, that had been the great disconnect: A massively talented team kept losing games for no reason. Ergo, 4-4 at the midpoint. On Sunday, we saw them excel at Dan Quinn’s post-Foxborough points of emphasis. They converted on third down (7 of 13). They scored three offensive touchdowns for the first time since Sept. 24. Heck, they managed a third-quarter offensive touchdown, something heretofore unseen this season.
That touchdown changed the game. The 11-play drive was Steve Sarkisian’s finest hour as offensive coordinator – seven passes, four runs, 75 yards over 6:34. Jones made a deft sideline catch. Tiny Taylor Gabriel ventured over the middle to convert on third-and-6. Tevin Coleman got it started with a 17-yard burst. Justin Hardy ended it by flashing across the back line to snag Ryan’s pass on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line. With the third quarter half-gone, the Falcons led 17-7.
As we know too well, a double-digit lead has been a fleeting thing in calendar 2017. This one seemed, and was, safe. The Falcons’ offense took a while to get moving, but for the first time in many a moon it found something approximating a groove. Said Quinn: “It was hard going with the run early, but we knew we had to stick with it to make our play-action effective.”
Meanwhile, the defense was making Prescott feel as if he was still at Mississippi State facing Alabama at high tide. He was sacked eight times, twice by someone who wasn’t Clayborn, and lost two fumbles, both induced by Clayborn. Without Ezekiel Ellliott, suspended at last, the Cowboys were out of plumb. Without injured tackle Tyron Smith, they were utterly outmanned.
Their inability to block Clayborn grew comical. Remember Jerry Rice catching five touchdown passes against the hapless Charles Dimry at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium? This was like that, only the Falcons were the ones doing the laughing.
Let’s be honest: They needed this. They needed a game that didn’t involve a blown lead or a narrow victory over a team they should have put away. They needed to prove to themselves and to us that they still have that capability. Maybe Elliott would have changed things, but you can only beat the guys in uniform on the day you play them. (Besides, Devonta Freeman was lost to a concussion on the Falcons’ second snap.) What mattered was that, for the first time since that first half against Green Bay, the Falcons looked like a good team.
Let’s also be honest about this: Their first eight games constituted a major underachievement. They’ve insisted they’re better than they’d played. This was the first time they’ve backed it up.
“It was all three phases,” Quinn said of his team’s showing. “That’s what we’re searching. That’s what we’re hoping. That’s what we need to do.”
Then: “I’ve been pleased with our preparation. We needed to take the next step.”
This was the first step on the Falcons’ road to recovery. For that road to lead anywhere, more steps are needed. They’ve spent the fall doing the start/stop thing – they were 3-0, then 3-3, then 4-3, then 4-4. If they’re indeed better than that, there can be no more retreats.
A year ago, Clayborn was injured and unsure if his career had much longer to run. (Said Quinn: “He was in a dark place.”) In the ninth game of his team’s uninspiring season, he sacked Prescott six times and gave these Falcons something they’d been lacking. He gave them reason again to believe.