For Falcons, Philly Must Be an Anomaly If Lombardi Is To Be

By Cory Woodroof

The Atlanta football Falcons can win the Super Bowl this year.

Go ahead and knock on wood, and then get back with me.

Done? Ok good – the Falcons can seriously win the Super Bowl this year.

Ok, go ahead – knock on wood again. I’ll wait.

Ok, you’re back? Good. Change of pace.

If they make it there, the Falcons won’t win a playoff game – at home or away – if they play like they did on Sunday against a possible playoff opponent like Philadelphia.

The road loss to Philadelphia wasn’t the lowest low of the season – going down 31-13 against the Bucs in week one at one point happily claims that prize – but seeing the typically-explosive offense manhandled by Philly’s ferocious front seven and the run defense gashed by the Eagles’ run game was by-far some of the most deflating imagery of the 2016 campaign.

Really, losing to the Eagles at home isn’t that big of a deal in the long run. The team is a very respectable 6-4 after a super-deluxe car wash of a schedule (the fact that they went 3-1 and probably should have gone 4-0 on the NO, CAR, DEN, SEA will forever amaze), they’re in the front seat still for the NFC South title and you just can’t assume the offense forgot how to score points or that OC Kyle Shanahan just forgot how to call plays, or that his plays are now magically easy to figure out.

Fun fact: the Falcons legitimately haven’t played a bad team this year, and are over .500 — the *worst* competition has been the Carolina Panthers, who know Atlanta well and are still always going to be a hard out. That’s encouraging going ahead.

Some mentioned the Philly defeat might be a “good loss” for the Dirty Birds – the down-to-Earth, “we’ve still got work to do” defeat that gets teams in the right mindset for a late-season run. While it certainly wasn’t good to watch that debacle of a game, good can be had.

But, the trip to Philadelphia must be an absolute anomaly if the team is serious about contending for the Super Bowl this year – something that is absolutely within reach given the state of things.

Right now, the Falcons have the best quarterback and passing offense in the NFC. The run game is also mighty fine when fully staffed, with Devonta Freeman, a healthy Tevin Coleman and midseason perk Terron Ward in the stable. The offensive line has a strong left side, a Pro Bowl center in Alex Mack and a right side is solid enough (RT Ryan Schraeder has been getting grief this season, but when you look at the guys he’s had to go up against recently, it’s hard to blame any slippage in play).

They lost TE Jacob Tamme for the year, a blow made less poignant by the emergence of TE Austin Hooper. But, once Coleman is back in the fold, the offense is good to go in theory. They can score on any defense, even on the road – look at the Seattle game. Sunday’s struggles were mostly because Philadelphia might have the league’s best front four – Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham would give any offense fits.

Defensively, it is how it is. The defense is opportunistic but flawed – helped by emerging talents and hampered by inexperience and a few weak spots of personnel. The team doesn’t have the defensive tackle group to scare anyone – DT Grady Jarrett is good, but he can’t do it by himself. The edge group is more consistent than in year’s past with Vic Beasley Jr. closing in on double-digit sacks in his second year and DE Adrian Clayborn playing at his career-best. The team is also getting pressure from DE Brooks Reed, and veteran rusher Dwight Freeney will be coming off three weeks of rest on a torn quad to make the late-season push. Linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are fast, physical and young. They’re going to make splash plays and mistakes.

Keanu Neal will be a key factor in the Falcons' playoff push.

Safety Keanu Neal will be a key factor in the Falcons’ playoff push.

S Keanu Neal is the stud the team drafted – a hard hitter, very good in coverage, but still prone to rookie hiccups. The team dodged a bullet with an injury to CB Desmond Trufant. He’s expected to return against Arizona, a major boost to the secondary that sorely needed him against Philadelphia. The rest of the personnel will do their jobs admirably, though now flawlessly.

Really, that’s the defense – admirable, but flawed. You *can* win a Super Bowl with an admirable, but flawed defense if the offense is a walking, talking smokestack.

So, why the optimism, Woodroof?

The NFC is a crapshoot this year. Seattle may have just handed defeat to the Patriots at Foxboro, but they’ve still got issues on the offensive line that could dictate how the team performs. Dallas has the terrible rookie twosome of QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Dez Bryant and that steadfast offensive line, but we’ve yet to see a rookie tandem like this really make a Super Bowl push. It’s certainly doable, but still, doubts linger. Minnesota needs serious improvement on offense to make a deep push, the other three NFC East teams — Washington, Philly and the New York G-Men — have pluses and minuses to their games. None above would be fun on the road, but at home, all are beatable.

The Falcons have a stronger offense than all the teams above and can score on anyone. And, they’ve been typically able to play enough defense this season not to lose in a shootout.

Plus, if the Super Bowl goes through Seattle, the Falcons could be the only team that could defeat them – they nearly did last month if it weren’t for an errant call. If you’re going to beat Seattle, you have to beat them in the air: advantage Atlanta over other NFC teams in that regard. If the Super Bowl doesn’t go through Seattle, it’s open season for anyone in the NFC playoffs. A crapshoot. So, why not the Falcons?

Well, Atlanta is a mystery as to what its ceiling in 2016 is – if the team can get Coleman back and regain complete form on offense (re: the Denver game), they’ll be an unstoppable unit. The defense could continue to grow as the year goes on and the rookies get more and more experience, or the young guys could just be “what they are” for now like Beasley and Jarrett in 2015, and the team will have to make do with what they’ve got on D.

You’ve seen our argument for what the team has to do to make it to the post-season. Let’s say that, as the odds indicate, they do.

Can they make it to Houston to take on the AFC Champions?

Yes – but not if they play like they did Sunday.

Sunday was the “bad Falcons” – the 2015 residue squad that just loves to repeat the mistakes of yesteryear. They’ve not been that team very often in 2016 – really, the first season game and the second half of the San Diego game are the best examples of this happening, and you could blame the Chargers loss on losing Coleman. But, we hadn’t seen a full performance of this grimy group post the Oakland win.

All the factors were in plain view – the team focused too heavily on WR Julio Jones and didn’t spread the ball around, they struggled establishing the run, they struggled in pass protection, they couldn’t stop the run worth a nickel and they got eaten alive on the cross routes and throws to the sideline.

We’ve seen hints here and there of old habits that have indeed taken a while to die hard, but we hadn’t really seen the wheels come off the bus like this. The Falcons aren’t a *bad* team when this happens. They’ll do good things to the point where they’re always in it, but when the supper bell rings, they won’t be at the table to eat the victory feast.

What’s interesting is if the team will respond to their first publicized smack of the season: Eagles DC Jim Schwartz called the offense’s draw-ups “schoolyard routes,” and perhaps more potently, CB Leodis McKelvin called the Falcons a “front-runner” team.

“I was telling the defense, this is the type of team, they are a front-runner. They are a front-running team,” McKelvin said via ESPN’s Tim McManus. “If you go out there and make some stops, they eventually are going to be dying down.

“They actually ran the same play back-to-back,” he said. “Don’t do that. That was just a bad mistake. They ran the same play back-to-back, and I made a play.”

That play was the game-sealing pick McKelvin had on Matt Ryan, who chucked away the last chance the Falcons had of winning the ball game.

McKelvin’s comments are a little here-and-there as to how the Falcons have been in 2016. The Seattle and second Tampa Bay games proved that the offense can take a few lumps (and stops) early before slamming down the lighting in the third quarter. They’re certainly not a fast start-slow finish type of group.

But, this should be the bulletin board material for the Falcons going forward. This should be the game they try earnestly to avoid going into the final six games of the season.

The Falcons are clearly a better team than Sunday showed – the proof is in the pudding. It’s also incorrect to assume this is when the “great fall” will commence. The team was coming off a ten-game stretch with no bye week, and the then-4-4 Philadelphia was playing for their season (4-5 teams don’t usually get to stick around in January). Really, the San Diego game saw desperation as well. As did likely Tampa Bay, but the Falcons were able to come out ahead there in full force.

So, whatever happens will come down to the Falcons ensuring this game was another blissful blip on the radar – just like the opening Tampa Bay loss ended up being. The bye week needs to be a time of healing up battle wounds, learning from past mistakes and figuring out a way to ensure the end of the season is the first legitimately happy one in the franchise’s history.

Also, since Tamme’s out, they should really consider giving veteran free agent TE Owen Daniels a ring-a-ling and getting him in a Falcons jersey for the remainder of the year.

They need to go 4-2 or 5-1 over the next six games – only a steady, ball-hawking Kansas City at home and the always-tough Carolina on the road present major tests for the Falcons. Arizona, San Francisco and New Orleans again won’t be easy, and Los Angeles has an x-factor with their defense and the mystery of QB Jared Goff. But, all are very winnable.

It can happen this year if the Falcons play at their best. If they play even close to their best, they can make the merry push.

If they don’t and indeed let old habits die hard, let the early-January free agent wish list articles commence. The team that played Sunday is closer to picking in the high twenties of the NFL Draft than they are to hoisting that glorious silver trophy.

We will certainly see which Falcons team comes to the table.

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