Give the Falcons Their Due
Coming off a spectacular blowout of last year’s Super Bowl winners last week and a convincing defeat of the Detroit Lions on Saturday to secure the No. 1 NFC seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons are arguably the team to beat this year.
Their 13-2 record puts them up among the finest caliber of teams in the National Football League, better than nearly every playoff team from last year’s season – at least on paper.
The team, which easily clinched the NFC South early this season, is widely ranked every week as one of the top five franchises in professional football. But with that title comes a constant sense of nagging, an insurmountable line of questioning beginning with “yeah but” from pundits and sports writers at the same time.
To these blowhards, the Falcons and team quarterback Matt Ryan have something to prove, something they must do before anyone will take them seriously: win a playoff game.
Before the Falcons do that, the team is just a bunch of wannabes that can’t or, worse yet, won’t show up when it really matters – or so say these haters. Worse yet, the explanation for the Falcons’ success goes something like “either the other team just had a really bad game” or “they just weren’t good enough to begin with.”
That response is both trite and increasingly unwarranted – and they know it. Only with last week’s defeat of the New York Giants have the Falcons begun to attract begrudging acceptance as a true playoff contender capable of making big plays and winning when it matters the most.
Of course, it’s tempting to simply point out that each of Atlanta’s losses in the postseason in the post-2008 Mike Smith era have been to the eventual Super Bowl champions. And it’s also tempting to point out that the Falcons retain one of the best home-field records in the NFL as they approach the playoffs.
No wonder around Atlanta, at least, there’s a certain feeling that the city isn’t getting credit for the wins it’s earned. That it’s been cheated somehow.
But no matter the fact that a “win is a win,” it’s the height of laziness to just point out the Falcon’s NFC-topping 13-2 record as proof the team will do well later – just as lazy, in fact, as saying the team must win a playoff game to be considered “legitimate.”
Such is a narrative employed by critics to impugn real success as merely a stepping stone on the way to top – not a worthy goal in of itself but something less than, a puzzle missing a vital piece.
Critics should instead judge a franchise by this year’s team, not last year’s.
Rather than focus on what Mike Smith and company have or haven’t done in the playoffs since 2008, look at the 2012 season overall for clues as to the Falcon’s success this year in the playoffs. Certainly, nothing is ever a lock in professional sports, but things have progressed well on the Falcon’s side of the ball this year.
For example, Matt Ryan has proven himself as a maturing quarterback that can both throw the long ball under pressure and pull together a team for a series of come-behind victories – valuable skills in a league now sporting an increasing number of talented and up-and-coming quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck.
For the first time in his career, the even-tempered mid-20s quarterback has thrown over 400 yds. in a single game and improved his completion rating to elite-level status with the help of an all-star receiving corps, including Roddy White, Julio Jones and the Tony Gonzalez.
And despite, or perhaps because of, a largely lackluster season by running back Michael Turner in a transitioning pass-happy offense, these receivers have been able to come up with big, game-changing plays down the field like no other Falcons squad in the past 15 years.
And on the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons have forced key turnovers and made key stops when it matters most, a quality enviable of any playoff-ready team.
Need proof? Just look at the Falcon’s performance against New York, when they secured much-needed turnovers and prevented red-zone touchdown passes. Or, you can take a look at Saturday’s game against the Lions, where they held Detroit to just three field goals and a tacked on touchdown in the second quarter.
No, with key defensive players like Asante Samuels and Thomas DeCoud showing up to make big plays, in comparison to previous Falcons teams, this year’s squad is different, one eager to prove itself in the playoffs.
Indeed, it would be a mistake to discount them prematurely.