I feel somewhat vindicated, as the Atlanta Falcons dialed up the deep pass several times and put forth the best offensive game by putting up a season-high 34 points against the Buffalo Bills defense.
According to the official stats from the gamebook, Matt Ryan completed 4 of 10 deep passes for 94 yards, which doesn’t include a deep pass to Harry Douglas at the end that drew a 15-yard penalty. Ryan’s four deep completions came on four separate drives, all of which led to points for the offense, accounting for 24 points. The correlation between the Falcons being able to generate big plays leading to points is fairly obvious right there. Roddy White was the recipient of all four deep catches, and for the first time this season looked like the all-time great that we’ve come to know, love, and respect over the past eight years.
Falcons Are Aggressive, and Rewarded for it
This newfound aggressiveness has been something I’ve been calling for since the Falcons Week 8 loss to Arizona, where I felt the Falcons first failed to capitalize on the deep-ball opportunities they had in that game.
One of the bigger obstacles the Falcons have faced in the weeks since has been the concern surrounding their pass protection. It’s led to questions whether the Falcons offensive line could protect Matt Ryan long enough to allow him to throw down the field. Well, against the Bills Ryan was sacked six times. giving Buffalo a league-leading 43 sacks on the year.
One conclusion is that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the Falcons offensive line is good enough to protect Matt Ryan for all of the plays, just as long as they protect him for some of them. The Falcons lost 39 yards on those six sacks but the 94 yards on the deep throws more than makes up for the yardage lost.
While six sacks allowed will look bad on the stat sheets, it really didn’t have as huge a negative impact on the game because the Falcons offense was able to generate big chunks of yardages and create turnovers on defense, both of which have been rare occurrences this season since Julio Jones’ injury.
The Falcons simply can’t be afraid to take sacks if they want to score points. Their attempts over the past five weeks to try and dink and dunk their way down the field hasn’t worked. That has been evidenced by the low point totals the Falcons have put on the scoreboard over the past six games prior to Sunday. The scoring they had in both Buccaneers games came largely thanks to big plays generated by Harry Douglas and Antone Smith.
The offense also got a boost from a solid rushing attack, where Steven Jackson had a season-high 84 yards on 23 carries. The running game wasn’t great, but it was effective at times as it was successful on 39.3-percent of their 28 runs from scrimmage. The team’s overall success rate on the ground was lowered because of their inability to finish the game strong. In the first three quarters, the Falcons’ rushing success rate was 50-percent (10 of 20), but was 22-percent thereafter (2 of 9).
Jackson got 11 carries on 1st-and-10, and was able to gain 4 or more yards on 7 of those attempts. That helped set up the Falcons into more manageable second and third downs, helping the team convert a season-high 56-percent of their third down attempts against the Bills.
Bills Mistakes Change the Narrative of Game
But it made for the most complete performance for the Falcons offense, and one of the better ones for the defense as well. Mainly because the team was able to generate a pair of critical late-game turnovers that basically killed a pair of potential game-winning drives for the Bills. The inability to take the ball away has been a huge change for the Falcons from 2012 to 2013. A year ago, they ranked sixth in the league in terms of takeaways, averaging 1.9 per game. This year, that figure has fallen to 31st with 0.7 takeaways per game (according to TeamRankings.com) heading into Sunday’s game against the Bills.
The two turnovers were reminiscent of the 2012 group. The strips on Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler on the Bills’ final two drives were the plays of the game. Robert McClain had struggled covering Johnson throughout the day, but punching the ball out from behind was a game-saver. The ball bounced right into William Moore’s hands, halting the Bills from lining up for the game-winning field in the final thirty seconds and sending the game into overtime. Then it happened again on the opening series of overtime, as Moore knocked the ball out of Scott Chandler’s hands near midfield and Robert Alford scooped it up. That led to the game-winning field goal from Matt Bryant.
Both turnovers could be considered lucky breaks for the Falcons, although most turnovers tend to be that way. The Falcons also got a break under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter thanks to some questionable officiating. Steven Jackson ran the ball down to the 1-yard line on a 3rd-and-goal from the 5-yard line. That set up a potential game-deciding 4th-and-goal play for the Falcons but Harry Douglas was flagged for an unnecessary roughness call on his block on Jackson’s run, backing up the Falcons to 3rd-and-goal from the 16-yard line. But the refs made a questionable call on Nickell Robey with a pass interference in the end zone while checking Douglas, which gave the Falcons a new set of downs at the 1-yard line. Steven Jackson ran it in on the very next play to tie the game at 31-31.
Douglas’ penalty may have been a blessing in disguise, as it significantly changed the potential narrative of the game. Had the Falcons called a run on that 4th-and-goal play and been stuffed, the narrative would have centered on the inability of the Falcons offensive line to gain a single yard. That’s a narrative that has been beaten into the ground many times since the 2011 season, and I for one am glad it won’t be the case this week. Also depending on the play call on the fourth down, it could have potentially opened up the door for more questioning of Dirk Koetter’s play-calling, something I’ve done quite a bit of over the past six weeks.
But thanks to the flag on Robey, and the eventual fumbles by Johnson and Chandler, those aren’t the narratives this week. Instead, we have the happy feelings of seeing the Falcons get another win.
Winning Satisfies Now as Opposed to Later
I know others may not be so happy, given it puts the Falcons in a slightly more difficult position to get the player of our collective dreams, Jadeveon Clowney, in next May’s draft. The Falcons currently possess the fourth overall pick in the draft thanks to Washington’s Sunday Night loss to the New York Giants. Whether that really affects the Falcons ability to get Clowney is really not for me to say. While I do enjoy mock drafts, when done in December they are more useful for cleaning your backside than accurately projecting the NFL draft five months in advance. But it’s fairly obvious that the higher the Falcons pick the greater the chance they get Clowney.
I personally didn’t expect that a Falcons win on Sunday would really move my needle. Heading into the game, I had gotten so used to losing and frankly in my discontent figured it was too little, too late. But I did in fact go to sleep last night with the warm, fuzzy feeling that usually comes after a Falcons win. And it thus reaffirms my “anti-tanking” resolve. While I may have a much warmer, fuzzier feeling come May if the Falcons do land Clowney, the 2014 draft is a long way off. And in the meantime, I’ll take the guaranteed positive feelings following a Falcons win over something that is by no means a guarantee five months from now. Even if the Falcons do manage to secure the No. 1 pick, there is no guarantee that Clowney will be their selection. One should remember that Da’Quan Bowers and Damontre Moore are two recent examples of players that were considered potential top picks in February before their respective drafts. Thanks to an injury to Bowers and poor workouts by Moore, they fell to the middle of the second and middle of the third, respectively.
Will the same happen to Clowney, the most-lauded defensive end prospect in a decade? Probably not. But the point is that it could happen. As was the case with Bowers and Moore, a lot can happen in the final two months leading up to the draft, let alone five months between now and then. Because we won’t really have a good idea whether or not the Falcons will have a good shot at Clowney until after the Scouting Combine and into March at the earliest, gaining some happiness from a Falcon win or two over the next month appears to be a fair trade-off in my eyes.
Elsewhere in the NFL…
I didn’t discuss the non-Falcons games last week, because I was burnt out last weekend thanks to some personal matters I had to deal with as well as just being exhausted by the Falcons losing. But this week, I’ll get back to looking at the rest of the league as we get into the final quarter of the 2013 NFL season.
If the playoffs started tomorrow, Baltimore (6-6) would have the sixth seed in the AFC, thanks to their head-to-head win over Miami (6-6) in Week 5. What’s interesting about the AFC playoff chase it that Tennessee (5-7) has head-to-head wins over the three other 5-7 teams in New York, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. They may ultimately regret losing to Indianapolis yesterday. The Titans defense played well for 54 minutes, but gave up a late 97-yard game-winning drive to the Colts. They held the Colts offense to five field goals up until that point and sacked Andrew Luck five times, but thanks to three turnovers by Ryan Fitzpatrick (followed up by a fourth after the Colts’ game-winning drive), failed to capitalize. Tennessee is 1-5 in games that Ryan Fitzpatrick threw more than 10 passes in, and the lack of a quality backup quarterback is really going to be the difference in them not making the playoffs in all likelihood. All three wins against playoff-cotending teams came in September with Jake Locker healthy and at the helm.
Next week’s inter-conference matchups between Indianapolis (8-4) and Cincinnati (8-4) as well as Miami and Pittsburgh should have an effect on playoff seeding. The winner of the Colts-Bengals game will have the tie-breaker for the third seed. That could be pivotal, as the sixth seed is up for grabs, and should be an easier matchup than the Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) who appear locked into the fifth seed after falling two games behind Denver (10-2) due to a head-to-head sweep with a loss on Sunday.
In the NFC, the Eagles’ (7-5) win over the Cardinals (7-5) gave them a leg up in playoff seeding. However the Eagles wouldn’t be in the playoffs if the postseason started today, as they are still a game behind the 49ers (8-4) and two behind the Panthers (9-3). Their best chance of playing in January seems to be based on winning their division, with the Cowboys (7-5) currently holding the lead thanks to Week 7 win in Philadelphia. That is likely leading to the Eagles needing to keep pace with the Cowboys and winning their Week 17 matchup in Dallas. Next week, Philadelphia has a golden opportunity to get another win against Detroit (7-5), who is currently the third seed in the NFC thanks to beating Dallas in Week 8.
Obviously, tonight’s matchup between the Seattle Seahawks (10-1) and New Orleans Saints (9-2) will have seeding implications. If the Saints get the upset on the road, they will move into the top seed in the conference. But the Panthers will still be nipping at their heels, as they have two matchups against the Saints in the final month of the season, including next week’s in Charlotte. With other upcoming games at home against the Jets and a road finale against the Falcons in Week 17, it’s possible that the Panthers could run the table. If they do so, they will be the first team since the perfect 2007 Patriots to win their final 12 games of the season. It’s a feat that has been done only three times in NFL history since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Besides the Lions-Eagles and Panther-Saints matchups, other games next week that will impact the NFC’s playoff seeding will be the Seahawks taking on the 49ers and the Cowboys facing the Bears (6-6).