If a one-loss Atlanta team couldn’t get any respect from the national media, imagine the narrative after the Falcons’ embarrassing 30-20 loss on Sunday to the Carolina Panthers, which saw Atlanta gain 35 total yards in the first half.
Atlanta fans and players have clamored all season for national recognition, but each time the Falcons appear to be on the brink of getting some, they either escape with an ugly victory or they lose to a less talented team.
“I can hear it now,” Tony Gonzalez told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after Sunday’s loss. “They’re getting off the bandwagon. I can hear them jumping off. Looking at our history, people are going to go, ‘See, I told you.”’
On NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast, Rodney Harrison had this to say after the Falcons lost to the 4-9 Panthers: “No one is afraid to play the Falcons.”
It’s been the story of the season so far for the Falcons. At 11-2, they are tied with the Houston Texans for the best record in the NFL, but they’ve won seven games by seven points or fewer and haven’t won convincingly since Week 3. Only three of the teams the Falcons have beaten have winning records: Denver (10-3), Washington (7-6) and Dallas (7-6). And despite the fact that they have already clinched the NFC South, the Falcons have the third-lowest point differential (plus-78) of the eight division leaders.
|Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has the Falcons at 11-2, but can they win in the playoffs? (US Presswire)|
The Week 2 Monday night game against Denver marked their only victory over a current playoff team this season, and even the storyline on that win wasn’t entirely favorable. Broncos QB Peyton Manning threw three first-quarter interceptions, boosting the Falcons’ chances every bit as much as Matt Ryan’s two touchdowns.
The Falcons' second 2012 appearance on national TV was Sunday Night Football on Nov. 4 against Dallas. In that game, Ryan failed to throw a touchdown pass in a regular-season game for the first time since the 2011 opener. Atlanta won on stout defense and four Matt Bryant field goals, hardly staples of the Falcons' identity. Following the game, Ryan described the Falcons as “good enough” to win. Good enough on a national stage doesn’t engender much optimism, especially against a team that had lost three of four coming into the game.
The third national TV game was Nov. 29, when the Falcons hosted the Saints on NFL Network. Atlanta won again, but Drew Brees threw a career-worst five interceptions, and Ryan set season-lows by completing just 54.5 percent of his passes for 165 yards.
In the middle of the game, as the Falcons were struggling to put the Saints away, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King tweeted: “Hard to love the Falcons.”
Even if the Falcons were undefeated, critics could still cite the one undeniable stigma of their recent history: playoff failures. No analyst or pundit is willing to go out on a limb and anoint a team that hasn’t proven it can win in January, much less one that’s needed five fourth-quarter comebacks to reach 11 wins. That’s not to say the Falcons can’t win in this year’s playoffs or won’t win in this year’s playoffs. But critics are hesitant to call the Falcons Super Bowl contenders until they win a playoff game. After all, they’ve lost their last three postseason games -- to the Giants in 2011, the Packers in 2010 and the Cardinals in 2008.
That 0-3 playoff albatross is also what’s holding Ryan back in the discussion of “elite” quarterbacks. He’s tied with Ben Roethlisberger among active quarterbacks as the quickest to 50 wins, second fastest in league history behind Patriots QB Tom Brady. It took them 69 games; it took Brady 65. The distinction between Ryan and the other two is the playoff success.
It’s fair to be skeptical of the Falcons’ recent playoff history. But keep in mind, all three teams they lost to in their most recent playoff appearances went on to the Super Bowl. Also, Ryan was still developing as a quarterback, and only last year did Atlanta have WR Julio Jones, the extra receiving threat that has opened up the offense substantially. It’s relevant to note that Ryan was restricted under last year’s offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey, and the Falcons have transitioned to a more potent pass-first offense under Dirk Koetter.
That transition is significant because the Falcons have invested a lot in their passing game. Roddy White, Jones and Gonzalez have combined for 19 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 receiving yards this season. When the passing game isn’t at full strength, either because of an injury or because the timing is just off, the Falcons are extremely vulnerable.
Their rushing offense ranks 28th in the league (86.9 ypg), a far-cry from the 17th-ranked rushing attack (115) that they had last season. RB Michael Turner is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, the lowest-rate in his nine-year career, and the Falcons pass it on first down 39.9 percent of the time, higher than every other team except the Patriots. Despite repeated attempts, the Falcons offense is not balanced. If their passing game wavers, Atlanta’s season could be in jeopardy.
The Falcons’ hopes for national recognition are almost a moot point after Sunday’s loss, but it doesn’t really matter. As a team, they’re not focused on winning back supporters. Their focus is on building momentum for the playoffs.
“You want to play your best football in December,” center Todd McClure said. “Nobody remembers how you played in September and October.”
Working toward that end, the Falcons will host the New York Giants next Sunday. The Giants pounded them 24-2 in the playoffs last season en route to the Super Bowl championship, so as barometers go, this will be a big one in determining whether Atlanta has what it takes to finish big.
For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSFalcons.