They should have won Super Bowl 51. If they play like this, they’ll have a good shot at winning Super Bowl 52. (And Super Bowl 53 will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Just sayin’.) As fatalistic as the misdoings in Houston in February have left this already-skittish audience, we must face facts: There are times when these Falcons really do look like the NFL’s best team.
Twice this calendar year, they’ve looked the part against Green Bay, which a lot of folks keep tabbing as a Super Bowl team. Twice this calendar year, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers have come to Atlanta and flown home without taking a lead. Once was in the NFC championship, the final game staged in the Georgia Dome. This latest was under the open roof (hoorah!) of MBS on a night commemorated by Arthur Blank and various dignitaries with a ribbon-cutting.
Never mind that this was technically the eighth sporting event held in MBS. (Previous installments: Two NFL exhibitions, two Chick-fil-A Kickoff games and three MLS matches.) As we know, the best way to get trampled is to stand between Blank and a TV camera, and NBC supplied the airtime this night. As we also know, Blank tends to get what he wants.
And, not to get ahead of ourselves, this team could be the one that finally delivers a Lombardi Trophy to this owner and this city. Fourteen regular-season games remain, which means much can and will happen, but the 2017 Falcons just aced their first major test. They beat Green Bay 34-23 and looked great doing it.
The Packers arrived having much the better of these teams’ Week 1 wins, having held Seattle without a touchdown while the Falcons were a dropped pass from losing in Chicago. When the same Bears went to Tampa Bay on Sunday and trailed 26-0 at the half, you thought, “Hmmm.” Then you noted that the Seahawks managed but one touchdown in a 12-9 victory over Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers and you thought, “That sort of suggests that Seattle just can’t score.”
This we know: The Falcons can score. When these teams met in January, they led 24-0 at halftime and 31-nil 69 seconds into the third quarter. This time they led 24-7 after 30 minutes, having outgained Aaron Rodgers and Co. 257 yards to 102.
The lopsided playoff loss to Green Bay in January 2011 still brings dyspepsia, but recent meetings have seen the Falcons managing to slow the great Rodgers. This first half was one of his stinkers – his passer rating after two quarters was 44.9 – and it could have been worse. Late in the half, he was lucky not to have had passes intercepted by Deion Jones and Brian Poole. Later still, one what-the-heck throw-it-up became a Desmond Trufant INT that turned this from a still-competitive game into another blowout.
Here was the Packers’ final series (not counting a kneeldown) of the half: A block in the back on a punt set them back to the 5; offensive interference on tight end Martellus Bennett overrode Randall Cobb’s catch-and-scoot to midfield, and then illegal procedure on Cobb made it second-and-12 at the 3. Then Rodgers threw a pass on which Trufant appeared the intended recipient. In the span of 22 seconds, Green Bay was called for three penalties and threw the ball to the Falcons. Game management!
But wait! It gets better! (Or worse, depending on your slant.) Green Bay took the second-half kickoff. Fifty-four seconds into the quarter, the Falcons led 31-7. Rodgers was slammed by Vic Beasley Jr. as he tried to deliver one of those dinky West Coast passes that can resemble laterals. This was ruled – correctly, per replay – an actual lateral. Trufant did the scoop/score thing. Desmond Trufant, difference-maker.
Oh, and there’s this: Had the Falcons gone for two on the PAT after Trufant’s touchdown and made it, they’d have held a 25-point third-quarter lead for the first time since … er, Feb. 5 in Houston. (Too soon? Sorry.)
It would be easier to name the Falcons who didn’t make major contributions than list all who did. Trufant and Beasley you know. Matt Ryan: 252 yards passing. Julio Jones: 108 yards receiving. Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman: Three touchdowns and 126 yards rushing between them. Matt Bryant: Two field goals of 50-plus yards. Keanu Neal: Five solo tackles and two assists. New coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel: Missions accomplished. Dan Quinn: 3-0 against Mike McCarthy.
Even with all of the above, there was still a throat-in-mouth moment inside the final six minutes. The Packers had sliced the lead from 24 to 11. The Falcons faced third-and-1 inside their territory, the same scenario on which Freeman whiffed on a block and Dont'a Hightower forced the fumble that undid the Falcons in the Super Bowl. Would they again try to throw?
Nope. Unlike Shanahan against New England, Sarkisian called a run -- and not just any run. Mohamed Sanu took a direct snap in the Wildcat set and handed the ball to Freeman, who scooted for the first down. Ballgame. Whew.
That "whew" shouldn't be the takeaway from a most impressive night, but these are the Falcons and they did blow that lead with the whole world watching. The good news: They might just be good enough to return to the game bearing Roman numerals. They might just be good enough to write a happier ending.