They’re not the team they were last season. We can all agree on that. Still, they’ve given themselves a chance to be what they were last season, and by this I don’t just mean a playoff qualifier. These Falcons could again win the NFC South.
It won’t be easy. They’ll have to beat New Orleans there on Christmas Eve and Carolina in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve. But if they win twice in roofed buildings named for the same German automobile, they’re division champs again, and a division champ gets to start the playoffs at home, and if you win your first postseason game … well, who knows where you might wind up?
The Falcons have won five of the past six. The feeling, however, isn’t of a mighty team gathering velocity but of a not-bad bunch doing just enough. They were fortunate at the beginning of this run, catching Dallas without Ezekiel Elliott and Seattle without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor and Tampa Bay without Jameis Winston. They profited from odd decisions by Pete Carroll and Sean Payton in two narrow victories. To their credit, they’ve risen from 4-4 to the cusp of the playoffs.
This is the NFL, where you’re supposed to be what your record says you are. But ask yourself this: Are the Falcons as good as 9-5 suggests? Two-thirds of those victories have come by six points or fewer. Only twice have they won by two touchdowns or more. They’ve scored 30-plus points four times in 14 tries. (They broke 30 in 11 of 16 regular-season games last season.) In three tests against top 10 defenses as rated by Football Outsiders – Carolina, Minnesota and New Orleans – they’ve averaged 15.3 points.
The Falcons didn’t face a good defense here Monday. The Buccaneers of Mike Smith entered ranked next-to-last in yards against and last in passing yards. They were missing anchors Gerald McCoy and Vernon Hargreaves. They saw a half-dozen others exit with various ailments, which is symptomatic of a 4-9 team playing out the string. Much of the crowd at Raymond James Stadium departed after a halftime ceremony honoring Jon Gruden, who in what seems another century led the Bucs to a Super Bowl victory.
And yet: Sub-.500 Tampa Bay came within a missed field goal as time expired of taking the reigning NFC champs to overtime. Final score: Falcons 24, Bucs 21.
The Falcons whooped it up in their locker room afterward, which is what this full-tilt bunch does. Seldom, though, have the 2017 Falcons played at anything approaching full capacity. They led 17-7 at halftime Monday and had chances in the third quarter to put the Bucs to sleep. Being the Falcons, they didn’t. They fizzled on offense and saw Mike Evans outfight Desmond Trufant and Ricardo Allen for the touchdown that made this game closer than it should have been. Even after Devonta Freeman scored to make it 24-14, the defense yielded another touchdown and the famous offense couldn’t run out the clock.
Yes, they won. Yes, they’re 9-5. But this game was like so many this season: It left you wondering why a team with the NFL’s most talented roster – this according to Pro Football Focus – only occasionally looks the part. This was a fairly benign road setting, what with the Bucs playing as if they’re ready to welcome yet another head coach. (If Dirk Koetter finishes 4-12 on a six-game losing streak, he’s surely out.) But the Falcons, with so much at stake, couldn’t put lasting distance between themselves and their callow opponent.
This was Dan Quinn after leading those locker-room cheers: “There were plenty of things for us to correct and clean up, and we will.” But how much of what keeps the Falcons from being – another DQ-ism here – “the best version of us” is an ongoing failure of coaching to maximize talent?
I know, I know. They won. They’ve won five of six. They can win the South for a second consecutive season. Why not accentuate the positive?
Because I expected more. Because I expect more. If we go by Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings from last week, the Falcons were the NFL’s 16th-best team, 10th-best in the NFC. They’re way better than that, or at least they should be.
And maybe, in the fullness of time, they will be. By Matt Ryan standards, this was a pedestrian game – 212 yards passing, a passer rating of 87.0. He did scramble for 29 important yards, almost offsetting the inability to find Julio Jones, who managed 199 fewer yards receiving than he had against the Bucs on Nov. 26.
Said Ryan, sending the cliché meter into the red: “We made enough plays to get it done, and we’re right where we want to be.”
And they are. Win two games and they win the South. It wouldn’t shock me if they did. (They are, for the thousandth time, a massively gifted team.) But, after all I’ve seen, it would surprise me.