Having just blown a 17-point lead to Jay Freakin’ Cutler , the Atlanta Falcons are bound for New England, where insufferable New Englanders are still chortling over another lost lead. No team had ever thought to etch a partial score showing a 25-point deficit in its championship rings – until this one.
The Patriots are 4-2, leading the AFC East. The Falcons are 0-2 against the AFC East and hold down third place in the NFC South. This wouldn’t appear the greatest time – heck, it would seem the absolute worst time – to head for Foxborough, but you know what? Appearances can and do deceive. Here we offer six reasons why the Falcons shouldn’t fear to enter the court of the grumpy king.
New England hasn’t been all that great, either. In last week’s DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons the NFL’s 13th-best team ; it ranked the Patriots the 21st-best. The Pats got to 4-2 after trailing 14-0 and then needing a bizarre replay ruling – Tuck Rule returns! – to not only overturn an apparent Jets touchdown but effect a change of possession. The two victories before that were a five-point shading of Tampa Bay in which Tom Brady and Co. managed one touchdown against the men of Mike Smith and a three-point win over Houston, which saw the winning touchdown come on Brady’s pass with 23 seconds remaining. If the Falcons could be 1-4 (and they could), the Pats might well be 1-5.
Bill Belichick, defensive genius? Not so fast, my friend. The Patriots’ defense ranks last among 32 teams in yards per game at 440.7. The second-worst defense – Smitty’s Buccaneers – is yielding 403.7 YPG. New England is likewise last in passing yards against; it’s tied for last in points allowed. The Falcons’ offense managed only 17 points apiece against AFC Easters Buffalo and Miami, but those teams play much better defense than Belichick’s flimsy crew.
The Patriots haven’t exactly been razor-sharp at Gillette Stadium. They opened there on Thursday night and got run down in the fourth quarter by Kansas City. They trailed Houston there inside the final 30 seconds. They trailed Carolina by two touchdowns with nine minutes left and lost by a field goal. They’re 1-2 at home and fortunate to be that.
Not to belabor that partial score, but there was a reason the Patriots trailed 28-3 on Feb. 5. Let’s be clear: Belichick’s game plan didn’t involve spotting the Falcons a 25-point lead. With 6:04 remaining in the third quarter, the Pats were so desperate they went for it on fourth-and-3 on their side of midfield. They'd been outgained 275 yards to 231. They’d just tried a Danny Amendola flea-flicker pass on third-and-3, which failed. A million things had to go right for them to get close that long night in NRG Stadium, and all of them did. This isn’t to excuse the Falcons, who had only to make one more play at the right time to claim the Lombardi Trophy, but they dominated that game – until they fell apart.
This game, simply as a game, means more to the Falcons than it does to the Patriots. New England is leading its division and, bad defense and all, will wind up in the playoffs. The Falcons, who are just now hitting the meat of their schedule, are listing. They beat Green Bay in a great display a month ago but haven’t been very good since. The offense has scored three second-half touchdowns this season. The defense couldn’t get off the field against Tyrod Taylor and recent retiree Cutler. If they are, as Dan Quinn maintains, better than this, now's the time to show it.
For the Falcons, this game is not just a game. Nothing will reverse the result in NRG Stadium. The Patriots won’t hand back those snarky rings if they lose Sunday night. “A historic game,” was Quinn’s Sunday description of Super Bowl 51, and his franchise, not for the first time, was on the wrong side of history. The Falcons have had 8 ½ months – as long as some pregnancies – to stew in the memory of their epic collapse. The only way they’ll get past Super Bowl 51 is to win a Super Bowl. The only way to win a Super Bowl is to make the playoffs. A galvanizing win in Foxborough could stand as the launch pad for another postseason run. And what better place to prove you can hold a lead than in the home of the team against which this can’t-hold-a-lead tag became a meme?