My Monday started with a gum graft and ended with Mike Smith's indefensible decision to punt the ball back to the Saints inside of the final three minutes. Happy days are here again! Here are my barely coherent thoughts on the game:
Overall, last night's game was either overdue or out-of-character. If you view the Falcons as a team that isn't especially good at either moving the ball or stopping opponents from doing so, then it was unsurprising. The team's record flatters them, so losing a close game was bound to happen. A team can't keep getting outgained and expect to win again and again. On the other hand, if you view the Falcons as a team with certain defined traits - a low variance offense that keeps the ball and avoids turnovers and a defense that doesn't give up the big play - then last night's game was weird because Atlanta didn't play like the team that we have seen for the first fourteen games. The Falcons turned the ball over twice, once on a fumble by a running back who never fumbles and the second a completely unforced blunder by Todd McClure. The Falcons were poor on third downs and as a result, were on the short end of total plays, first downs, and time of possession. In short, Atlanta didn't show any of the strengths that have gotten this team to 12-2.
Mularkey! The Falcons have one major advantage and one major disadvantage against the Saints. The advantage is that the Falcons' offense is based off of a between-the-tackles running game and the Saints are weak up the middle, as Baltimore showed the week before. The disadvantage is that the Saints' defense is entirely dependent on blitzing like mad, but the Falcons are not a team that looks for big plays to punish opponents for taking risks. In other words, Gregg Williams doesn't let his teams get nickeled and dimed and the Falcons don't have another way to attack. In the first game between the teams, the Falcons' running game was dominant. Last night, the Saints negated the running game and the Falcons had no Plan B. Whether by design or by circumstance, the Falcons went away from the bread and butter of their passing game - Roddy White (five targets) and Tony Gonzalez (three targets) - and instead funneled the ball to Michael Jenkins (nine targets!?), Harry Douglas (three targets and no catches; slot receiver ought to be a focus in the offseason, unless the Falcons are confident that Douglas's poor 2010 is the after-effect of his knee injury last year), and the non-Turner options in the backfield (Jason Snelling and Ovie Mughelli got three targets each). In an odd way, the Falcons were mimicking the Saints by spreading the ball around, but the end result was a meek 215 yards and seven points. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Gregg Williams ate Mike Mularkey alive.
And I'm spent. Brian Van Gorder's defense was terrific last night. Like the offense, the defense was out of character in the sense that they blitzed like crazy. If Brian Williams could make a tackle, the team would have had a bevy of sacks and gotten the Saints off the field sooner on several occasions. Williams' repeated whiffs were a reminder that Van Gorder had come up with blitzes to get rushers free, so kudos to Brian. The one concern for Falcons fans is that there is a good chance that the Falcons and Saints will be seeing one another again in January. In the grand scheme of things, last night's game didn't matter much because the Falcons have what the English would refer to as a home banker: the home game against the hapless Panthers on Sunday. We have to hope that Van Gorder didn't empty his magazine last night.
Hi, we're 32-14 over the last three years. Nice to meet you for the first time! From the start of the game, when Jon Gruden proclaimed that Matt Ryan is the best quarterback that no one knows about, to the end, when Mike Tirico admitted that fans around the country might not know much about the teams in the NFC South because they aren't favored in the media, there was a sense of "America, meet the Falcons." Gee, I wonder why America doesn't know much about the Falcons. Could it be that Tirico and Gruden's employer pays them no attention? Could it be that a team with consecutive winning seasons and a hot young quarterback hasn't been on a Sunday or Monday night game until week 16? The broadcasters' repeated references to the Falcons' low profile reminded me of Kirk Herbstreit claiming that Texas was motivated in their Rose Bowl against USC because no one gave them a chance, all while ignoring the fact that leading up to the game, he had been pimping USC as the greatest team of all time. A little self-awareness would be nice.
One other gripe about the broadcast last night: unless I missed it, no one mentioned that Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins is a converted corner. That's a pretty important fact when commenting on a safety who is showing great man-to-man coverage skills against the opponent's slot receiver.
OK, and one more: there is a creeping Favreism in the coverage of Drew Brees. When Brees blindly flipped a lateral to Pierre Thomas while being sacked, the obvious conclusion was "that's a low reward, high risk play." Tirico, Gruden, and (to a lesser extent) Jaworski all oohed and aahed a a quarterback making a dumb decision. He's just a crazy backyard quarterback out there having fun and making plays! So with the "where have I heard this before? alarm bells going at full steam, it was only natural that Brees threw a horrendous pick six on the next series. The funny thing about Tirico's reaction in particular is that it shows a complete lack of understanding big and small risks. He loved Brees taking a major risk with limited upside, but he treated Mike Smith's ludicrous decision to punt with 2:48 remaining - a decision that was high risk (as evidenced by the fact that the Saints were able to run the clock out) and low reward (the best case scenario was that the Falcons would get the ball back with two minutes and no timeouts) - as self-evident. And then the best part was that he never acknowledged Smith's and his mistake when the Saints were able to run out the clock.
What a pity, such nice muscles too. If only they were brains. Ed Hochuli and his crew seemed especially addled last night. The call that stood out was the inaugural appearance of a mutual pass interference call against Roddy White and Jabari Greer. I'd love to hear from anyone who has seen that call made before. The funny thing is that it makes sense to make that call in certain instances. How many times have we heard announcers say (correctly) that a receiver and corner had their hands all over one another? Hell, Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin played an entire NFC Championship Game that way in 1995. The problem was that Hochuli's crew unearthed the call for the first time on a play where Roddy White did nothing.
I'm confused. If Drew Brees and the Saints really saved New Orleans, then what was with all the transplanted Louisianans who now live in Atlanta at the game last night?