We took that opening loss to Tampa Bay – and by “we” I mean you and especially me – and figured the Falcons wouldn’t be favored again until the Chargers arrived in the doomed Dome on Oct. 23 and might be 0-6 by then. The first part happened: The Falcons haven’t been favored since Sept. 11. The second part manifestly did not.
The Falcons won their next four games, all as underdogs, and should have an asterisk attached to Sunday’s loss here. They lead the NFC South by 1 ½ games over the Buccaneers and Saints, neither of which are very good, and they’ve left the 1-5 Panthers in the dust. The Falcons will have to mess up royally not to qualify for postseason play.
As we know, they perpetrated such a regal folly last autumn, going from 5-0 to 8-8, and they did it against a much easier schedule than this year’s. But with every week, we’re seeing that last year is so … last year.
The 2015 Falcons mightn’t have beaten Denver without the Broncos’ No. 1 quarterback – indeed, those Birds specialized in losing to lesser quarterbacks — and they darn sure would have collapsed against the Seahawks on Sunday. The final score shows that the Falcons lost, which was the truth but not the whole truth. Apologies for trotting out the Cabbie As Vox Populi vehicle, but my driver to Sea-Tac really did say, “When your team (actually Arthur Blank’s team) went ahead, I thought we would lose.”
Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin: “Obviously you never want to watch a lead go, but that’s a good team over there.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn: “I like what our team identity is becoming. It’s growing stronger — that toughness, that resolve — to where we can attack in all three phases … Having that team identity knowing that all phases are going to attack, I feel it’s coming together. We so desperately wanted that to happen last year, (and) I believe that’s where we were going with some of this but it didn’t in terms of going all the way. I wanted that to happen overnight, but it didn’t. But I feel like this group is growing, quite a bit different from last year’s group.”
Record-wise, the Falcons are worse after six games – 4-2 against 5-1 – than last season. As a team, they’re much, much better. Mohamed Sanu has been an upgrade over the aging Roddy White. Alex Mack has become the fulcrum this offensive line has long lacked. With a healthier Vic Beasley Jr. and the rookie Keanu Neal, the talent quotient on defense is higher, and it was instructive that Kam Chancellor — the Seattle safety on whom Neal is modeled — missed Sunday’s game due to injury. Without him, the Seahawks aren’t as unyielding.
The odd part about last season’s epic collapse was that you figured the rough patch of any transition would come early, not late. Those Falcons started hot but got worse once October arrived, which was surely a sign of a team of limited means – and personnel not exactly suited to the new schemes – hitting its wall. Quinn has had another offseason to import his kind of guys, who are the Seahawks’ kind of guys, which was why the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game was so riveting: It was Seattle against Seattle Jr.
To borrow from Jackson Browne, the Falcons are one or two years and a couple of changes behind the Seahawks. That’s understandable. Pete Carroll has been in place since January 2010; his former lieutenant arrived in Flowery Branch in February 2015. The Falcons are building according to Seattle schematics and haven’t yet found all the materials. But they’re closer than they were last season, close enough that they scared Carroll and his marauders to their socks in what was billed as — and became — a big-time game.
It’s entirely possible these teams will see one another again come January. Maybe next time Richard Sherman won’t get away with it.