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Falcons Stay Atop NFC with 5th Straight Win
Coming off a 34-17 mauling of the 1 st place St. Louis Rams (says a lot about that NFC West!) the Falcons continued their consistent play, grinding out a 20-17 win at home against the Green Bay Packers to remain unbeaten at the Georgia Dome this season. Matt Ryan improved his career record at home to 19-1, while leading a Falcons offense that has now gone four consecutive weeks without turning the football over. The defense, while allowing Aaron Rodgers to complete 26 of 35 passes for 344 yards, managed three key stops that kept the Packers from taking the lead at any point in this game.
The first defensive stand came late in the first quarter, as Packers running back Dimitri Nance was stuffed on a third and one carry from the four yard line by Coy Wire, holding Green Bay to just three points. Once again facing a third down and one in the 2 nd quarter, this time on the Atlanta one yard line, Aaron Rodgers coughed up the football after being met by Curtis Lofton. The Falcons jumped on the loose football, and managed to hold the Packers to three first half points, despite two drives going inside the five yard line. The trend would continue once more in the fourth quarter, as Rodgers threw back to back incomplete passes with just a yard to go on third and fourth down in Atlanta territory.
With six minutes remaining, the Falcons opted to play prevent defense with a seven point lead, to the delight of Aaron Rodgers who picked them apart. The final play of this ninety yard drive was a work of art by Rodgers, who on fourth and goal from the ten, escaped the pocket to find Jordy Nelson in the endzone with just 56 seconds remaining.
As Matt Ryan had already delivered two game winning drives with under a minute remaining this season, it came as no surprise that with just 13 seconds left, the Falcons were in field goal range. Ryan completed four consecutive passes following a forty yard kickoff return by Eric Weems, who was foolishly brought down by the facemask to add an additional fifteen yards to the return. Ryan had little work to do, but executed to perfection, as he has done all season long. Matt Bryant once again came through in the clutch, knocking down the 47 yard attempt, making it five consecutive games he has gone without missing a field goal.
Simply put, there is not one phase of the game that the Falcons are struggling with right now. They are playing the type of complete football that few, if any teams are playing at the moment. The NFL’s sack leader Clay Matthews was unable to add to his total, as the offensive line put together another great performance after holding the Rams, who at the time led all defenses in sacks, to zero sacks the previous week. This unit has continued to develop chemistry and has been pounding away holes for Michael Turner, who ran for 110 yards on 23 carries.
On the opposite side of the trenches, aside from Aaron Rodgers scrambling 12 times for 51 yards, the Falcons defense held running back Brandon Jackson to a mere 26 yards on 10 carries. Although the Packers out gained the Falcons 418 to 294, it was the Falcons who made the stops when it counted and converted their own big plays to make the difference in this game. The conservative approach that often plagued the Falcons is becoming a distant memory, as Atlanta went 2 for 2 on big fourth downs to set up their two touchdowns. The first came on a fourth and three pass to Tony Gonzalez, which upon further review appeared incomplete, but went unchallenged by Mike McCarthy, leading to a touchdown by Gonzalez with 8 seconds remaining in the first half. The Falcons once again would convert, as Michael Turner found the end zone on a fourth and one carry on the goal line to begin the 4th quarter.
From offense to defense to special teams, all phases are clicking right now. The win leaves the Falcons alone atop the NFC with a 9-2 record, clinching their third consecutive winning season despite going their long history without back to back winning seasons before last year. On the heels of such a momentous victory, coach Mike Smith continued to keep things in perspective, talking about the “journey” as part of the bigger picture while addressing the team. While Smith appears to have his players buying in to what he is selling, you have to wonder how long this approach of his will work. All coaches are different and operate through different philosophies they feel are appropriate to success. While it is important that players realize the season is about a marathon, not a sprint, it is equally important that players feel a sense of accomplishment after a big victory. While Bill Belichick has made a career of lackluster press conferences and speeches, his football I.Q. is also matched by very few. The ability to motivate and to lead is often what takes good coaches into the conversation of greatness. Smith is showing he can get a group of young, talented players to buy into his approach, but you have to wonder when this act will begin to wear out or how effective it will be as this core of young talent evolves into veterans. How long will these players exhaust themselves for sixty minutes, only to hear the same monotone locker room talk that sounds similar in victory, as it does in defeat. It is good to keep the bigger picture in focus and avoid complacency, however, after another big victory against a top NFC team, how about a little excitement Smitty? Again, this is a small blip on the radar of a coach that already has notched victories against the Packers, Saints, Buccaneers, and Ravens, and does not negate what he has accomplished thus far. Smith has proven his ability to form a well-balanced team, that will play hard and disciplined, but the question that is yet to be answered is whether or not he has the attributes to bring this group to the next level.
With just five games remaining, the Falcons will be playing with destiny in their hands to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They will continue their “journey” next week at Tampa Bay, followed by two more consecutive road games at Carolina and Seattle, before returning home to face New Orleans and Carolina again. With two games against the Panthers and one against the Seahawks, it is tough to imagine the Falcons finishing below twelve wins. The big test, and likely deciding factor for a first round bye, will take place week 16 against the Saints, who remain one game back of the division. A loss to the Saints, coupled with another division loss, could give New Orleans the tiebreaker necessary to overtake Atlanta.