Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Once a doubter, I've become a Falcons believer

TAMPA -- They've got it going. They've kept it up too long for this to be a fluke on the order of, say, last season's 5-0 start. They've held up against a rough schedule. They're 6-3 having played in Oakland, Denver and Seattle. They lead their division by 2 1/2 games. They're becoming what Dan Quinn hoped they'd be, which is fast and furious across the board.

Asked after Thursday's 43-28 thrashing of Tampa Bay -- the Buccaneers scored the final eight points, FYI -- how good his Falcons are, Dan Quinn offered this: "Offensively we’re playing very well. Special-teams-wise, we’ve got to get rid of some of the penalties that are jamming us up. Defensively our tackling’s improving, our speed’s improving. Through the first nine games, we’ve had more big plays (against the defense) than we’d like. We can for sure improve in the red zone on both sides."

Then this: "As far as the whole team goes, they’re a very tight-knit group and they love battling for one another."

As reluctant as I am to spread the cliche contagion, this set of Quinn platitudes nonetheless bears the ring of truth. The Falcons are playing hard and well. They're not as talented as the team this coach left in Seattle, but the best part of the Falcons' near-miss at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 16 was that there appeared two Seattles -- one that set the mold, another that's trying its best to replicate it -- on the field that Sunday.

Here Thursday, there was only one team worth a fig. The Falcons lost to the Bucs 31-24 on Sept. 11. This game bore no imprint of that. Tampa Bay is falling to pieces. The Falcons are playing for a postseason bye. After the first meeting, Quinn had said his team was better-equipped in every way than it had been a year ago. At the time, I scoffed. I scoff no more. (As events unfold, opinions evolve.)

I've gone from -- being honest here -- doubting everything about the Falcons to believing DQ and Co. are really and truly on to something. Yes, even Kyle Shanahan. Especially Kyle Shanahan.

Matt Ryan has never been better. Said Quinn: "He's got a real locked-in look to him." And it's not just Ryan throwing to Julio Jones, though that's always there if needed. This is Ryan throwing to everybody -- Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo, Pat DiMarco, the Cleveland castoff Taylor Gabriel, even to a last-string tight end named Joshua Perkins. (Ryan overthrew him by a hair Thursday night and Perkins wound up juggling and then dropping what should have been a touchdown. Still ... Joshua Perkins!)

Quinn again: "The amount of guys we can get involved is a big topic for us."

Mike Smith, once the Falcons' head coach and now Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator, had no answer for anything the Falcons tried Thursday. They finished with 461 yards. They scored 22 points on their first four second-half possessions. They did not punt. They made one turnover. This would have been stunning stuff, except that they've come to do it every game.

The defense wobbled early -- it can do that -- but steadied as it went. It can also do that. It did something similar against Green Bay last week. The Falcons have 21 sacks on the season, two more than they had all last season. They're getting there.

I don't know if this is a Super Bowl team. I am convinced it's a playoff team, and it's getting better as it goes. If this sounds as if a doubter has become a convert ... well, there's a reason. I have.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.