For the past month my basic view of the Falcons is that they are not a very good team. Good enough to slog to the playoffs in the parity-focused NFL, yes, but not really a good team.
I’m reassessing after the Falcons thrashed Washington, 38-14, Sunday at FedEx Field. The Falcons made the NFC East leaders look like impostors. They arrived as one of several mediocre NFC teams on the wild card fringes, and left with a convincing victory that helps distinguish them from the pack.
The Falcons have won three straight games after losing three in a row. They beat the Bucs and Giants but were shaky on either side of the ball. Against Washington they were excellent all around and delivered their most complete effort of the season.
Once 1-3 and seemingly sunk by injuries, the Falcons are 4-4 and on the come. Keep it up and the Falcons will not have to grind their way to the playoffs, but run over lesser foes on the way there.
“Obviously, the start to the season was not what we were looking for,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “But we are halfway through it, we are 4-4, and we are in the mix. All the good teams that have I been a part of in my career are ones that have gotten better as the year has gone along.”
The Falcons are better, and I think they can keep it going. Next week they are at the Browns, who lost their fourth straight game on Sunday (and their first with an interim coach). After that the Falcons get the middling Cowboys at home, followed by the Thanksgiving Day showdown at New Orleans.
But we can stop talking about who the Falcons will play, and focus on how they are playing. Their defense is getting better as it figures out how to make do without a bevy of good starters on injured reserve. Their offense was pedestrian in the victory over the Giants before the bye, but returned operating like the familiar machine.
It was all way too much for Washington. The Falcons scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, forced Washington to punt on its first three possessions, then scored another TD on their first possession of the second half. The visitors were so much better that Washington was reduced to committing egregious penalties (10 for 147 yards) to try and keep up.
The Falcons scored on 6 of 9 possessions with five touchdowns. It should have been six TDs, but a bad offensive pass interference call wiped out Mohamaed Sanu’s fourth-quarter score. No matter: the Falcons kicked the field goal then later added Julio Jones’ 35-yard TD catch, ending his streak of games without a TD at 12.
Before this game, Washington was No. 4 in yards allowed per game and No. 5 in points. The Falcons piled up 491 yards, 7.7 per play. The Falcons hadn’t run the ball well but gashed Washington’s good rush defense for 154 yards on 24 tries. Ryan passed for 350 yards and four touchdowns against one pick.
It was clear all day that Washington would not stop the Falcons, who converted their first eight third downs and 10 of 13. Washington’s defenders could not pressure Ryan consistently, and they could not cover wide receivers Jones (too good), Calvin Ridley (too fast) or Sanu (too big).
“That’s tough for a defense to go against,” Ryan said. “They are all a little different, too. They take advantage of you in different ways.”
All that talent makes the Falcons hard to stop. So, too, does coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s design. He sticks with running the ball when it isn’t easy. The Falcons look for chances to break long runs but, mostly, they persist in running it to set up play-action passes.
“When both of those things are going, man, we can lean on one another and just pick our times and opportunities when we want to go down field or we want to run the ball,” Jones said.
With their offense humming, the Falcons didn’t need much defense. They ended up allowing their fewest points of the season.
If you want to mitigate that performance, you can point to Washington’s injuries along the offensive line. Starting left tackle Trent Williams didn’t play. Two other offensive line starters left the game with injuries.
No doubt those injuries contributed to the five holding penalties against Washington’s offensive linemen (two others, on the same play, were declined). But if we’re talking injuries few teams have had worse luck than the Falcons. They’ve been without at least four defensive starters in half their games, including Sunday.
They still held Washington to 366 yards, and 43 of those were empty yards at the end of the first half and another 72 came after Washington was hopelessly behind.
“In the beginning it was hard just because we didn’t know how to play with each other,” said Falcons safety Damontae Kazee, who had an interception late. “But now we do, and we communicate.”
It was not a perfect day for the Falcons. Ryan’s interception, a bad one, ended a scoring chance. The Falcons’ defense too often allowed Washington quarterback Alex Smith to slip away from sacks and cornerback Desmond Trufant dropped two would-be interceptions.
Those are minor nits to pick. The Falcons played a great game at Washington. That doesn’t mean they are a great team, but I’m starting to think they are good.