Atlanta sports franchises have been known to be pretty good in the regular season. The 2012 Atlanta Falcons can’t be called “great” until they make some serious headway in the playoffs, but they are a lot better than “pretty good.” Right now, in fact, they’re perfect.
The Falcons reached their bye week unblemished in the loss column. Their 6-0 record is good for an outrageous four-game lead in the NFC South and a less insurmountable one-game advantage over Chicago in the conference.
Although Mike Smith and company may not have dominated their first six contests, no team ever has to apologize for being unde- feated. If these Falcons want to make amends for yet another season of giving their fans heart attacks, well, that would be fair.
But all’s well that ends well and the two Matts have once again showcased a flair for the dramatic. Matt Ryan has engineered 18 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, most in the league since 2008 and most by any quarterback in his first five NFL seasons. Three have already come in 2012. Starting from his own one-yard line trailing Carolina by one with 1:09 remaining, Ryan heaved a 59-yard pass to Roddy White that led to a last-second field goal. At Washington, the Falcons scored 17 fourth-quarter points to erase deficits of 10-7 and 17-14. Against Oakland, Ryan led a 43-yard drive in 40 seconds that resulted in a winning field goal on the game’s final play.
Responsible for those kicks to cap off the frantic drives is, of course, none other than Matt Bryant. The 37-year-old connected from 40 yards out against the Panthers and from 55 against the Raiders (the second longest of his career) to keep Atlanta undefeated. Bryant is 13 for 14 on field goals this season and 75 for 84 in his career as a Falcon.
“He has been clutch,” Ryan said during his press conference after the Oakland game, speaking of his fellow Matt when he could just as easily been referring to himself. “He seems not to let anything affect him. He is really mentally tough. He has been huge for us.”
Samuel L. Jackson once asked, “What do Falcons do?” The catchy answer, as we all know, would be to say, “Falcons rise up!” The correct answer, however, is “Falcons play mistake-free football and win turnover battles.”
That’s what this team has always done under Mike Smith and that is exactly what it’s doing again in 2012. Atlanta has committed a shockingly-low (even by its lofty standards) 18 penalties through six games. No other team in the league has been flagged fewer than 31 times. Its 152 penalty yards are also best in the NFL and more than 100 fewer than all other 31 squads.
The Falcons have also forced 17 turn- overs (fourth most in the league), including 10 interceptions. Thomas DeCoud is tied for first in the NFL with four picks and he leads it with five total takeaways. Asante Samuel chipped in against the Raiders with a critical pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Falcons’ plus-10 turnover differential is third best in the league behind Chicago and New England. They also finished third in that category with a plus-14 mark in 2010, the year they compiled an NFC-best 13-3 record.
What’s different about this year’s squad is a more dynamic, pass-happy offense under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Ryan is averaging the sixth-most passing yards per game (292.7) and his quarterback rating is fourth best in the league (98.8). Tony Gonzalez is leading the NFL among tight ends in receptions (43) and yards per game (71.7) and he is tied for fourth with four touchdowns. White and Julio Jones have compiled average numbers by their standards, but they’ve once again delivered their share of memorable mo- ments; among others, White with his leaping, twisting grab against Carolina and Jones on his toes in the front corner of the endzone against Washington.
So far, however, the expense of Air Atlanta has been an anemic rushing attack. Traditionally one of the best running teams in the league, Atlanta is 29th in that category at 86.5 yards per game.
“We just have to execute better, and that’s all 11 guys on the field,” running back Michael Turner told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “That’s mainly what it is. We know that we have the ability to do it. We have to not take things for granted and go out there and still do the things that we’ve been coached to do.”
This sure has the same feeling as 2010, when the Falcons won the division and earned home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Heading into a Week 9 bye that year, they were 6-2 and tied atop the conference with the New York Giants. Thriller after thriller was won: 27-24 in overtime at New Orleans, 16-14 over San Francisco, 39-32 over Cincinnati, 27-21 over Tampa Bay, 26- 21 over Baltimore…. The list goes on.
Ultimately, however, that season ended in painful fashion as Atlanta went down in flames to Green Bay in its playoff opener, 48- 21 at the Georgia Dome. The 2008 and 2011 campaigns were not quite as successful but also not entirely different. Solid regular seasons led to playoff berths, but the Falcons lost at Arizona and at New York (the latter by a score of 24-2), respectively.
This year’s squad has to have postseason success on its mind, because that is the missing piece of the puzzle in the Ryan-Smith era. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but the Falcons have never won a playoff game with Ryan as quarterback and Smith as head coach.
“The hallmark of a good team is when you go out there and win games when you haven’t played your best,” Gonzalez told the team’s website after beating Oakland. “We’re 6-0 and we got a bye week so we have to clear our minds a little bit because we gotta play better football.”
The Falcons need to do it this Sunday at Philadelphia, but they really need to do it next January.