Where This Meets That
The last time I focused on the Falcons here, they were coming off a bye week after having reached a 6-2 midseason mark. Rested, they prepared to take on the AFC’s Ravens, also 6-2.
I noted then the Falcons’ grit, shown by their determination to capitalize on opportunities with games on the line. Their victory over the Ravens in week 10 forced the league to take notice, as Matt Ryan hit Roddy White for an exhilarating winning touchdown with seconds remaining.
Then these Falcons scrapped their way through five more victories, including notable brawls at the resurgent Buccaneers and against the popular NFC Championship-pick Packers, before losing to the Saints at home.
In all, these Birds improved upon their first half 6-2 record with a 7-1 second half record. They silenced many critics who said their weakness was the road by notching four straight road wins. Also noteworthy is that this 7-1 run included victories over three teams (Baltimore, Green Bay, and Seattle) who are among the final eight still competing this weekend.
Offensively, star performances abound with five Falcons selected for Pro-Bowl honors (Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, & Ovie Mughelli). However, there is still mild concern that the whole has yet to match the sum of its parts.
While the Falcons rank 5th in points scored per game, they rank only 16th in total offensive yardage. One might argue that, since they also rank 1st in NFL kickoff return yardage, they don’t require as many yards to score. However, I would point out that the Falcons rank 6th in field goals made, while the league scoring leader (and Super Bowl favorite) Patriots rank only 22nd in that category. In short, the Falcons need to better convert scoring opportunities into touchdowns to realize their potential.
Despite the preeminence of offensive star power, the real core competence of these Falcons has become their team chemistry. Turning again to the stats, check out this balance:
How’s that for equilibrium? In fact, the Falcons are the only team to rank in the top 5 in both scoring categories. They also rank in the top 5 in kickoff and punt returns, as well as in the all important turnover margin.
At midseason, I noted the fire in this defensive unit and acknowledged that, despite only moderate statistical improvement over 2009, the defense was becoming a potentially dominant force. Down the stretch, they have done just that. In addition to being stingy every down, they have become adept at making critical plays in critical moments.
Even in the team’s lone loss this side of midseason, the defense rattled the reigning Super Bowl MVP and SI Sportsman of the Year with relentless pressure, as their own offense struggled. In a critical span of the 4th quarter, the defense rose up with two spectacular interceptions that gave the Falcons the lead and put them in strong position to lock the game away.
Over the last quarter of the season, the defense got downright nasty, yielding nearly 6 fewer points and 50 fewer yards per game than it previously averaged. Jonathan Babineaux, John Abraham, & Curtis Lofton bolster a top 10 rushing defense, while the diminutive CB Brent Grimes and punishing safety William Moore anchor a feisty secondary that ranks 4th in interceptions.
Pro-Bowler Eric Weems has sparked an explosive special teams group with elevated all-around play, including returning both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns since midseason. Punter Michael Koenan is 2nd in the league in fair catches, and placekicker Matt Bryant has become a deadeye as the season has progressed.
This Saturday night the Falcons again return rested after week off, this time to rematch the Packers. During the first match, in week 12, the Falcons controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage but still needed a Matt Bryant field goal with 0:09 left to win.
This time, the scenario is a little different. First, while the national pundits have favored Green Bay much of the season, they are suddenly high on Green Bay’s resuscitated ground game, starring James Starks. Green Bay pickers believe Starks can provide the offensive balance the Pack sorely lacked in the first meeting.
However, I see the field tilted in the Falcons favor for a number of reasons.
This time the Falcons are better rested, and the Packers less so, than during the first meeting. Green Bay is riding an eight game grind, which saw them go 5-3 and lose star QB Aaron Rodgers to his second concussion of the season. Even though Rodgers is back in form, the last two games – versus the Bears to close the regular season and at the Eagles last Sunday – were especially physical. Now they visit the Georgia Dome on a short week.
At their best, the Falcons are a rich blend of fundamentals across the organization; they are fundamentally skilled, prepared, and disciplined. In 2010 these traits have molded into a team that is fundamentally consistent, and when one of the team’s units has fallen short, the other units have consistently risen to the challenge
With their week 10 victory over the Ravens, I got the feeling that we, the Falcons faithful, were really in for a special season; that it already has been. Now they are on the verge of a truly special season that we have only enjoyed once before, and I can’t wait to see it happen!
RISE UP! GO FALCONS!