This is the time of the year in which I usually start paying slightly more than casual attention to the NFL, mainly to divert myself from the sadness that is the end of college football, but also because this is the part of the season in which the contenders have made themselves apparent and I can focus on watching teams that have a chance of making noise in January. One of those teams, sadly, is the Falcons. I'd be willing to overlook an untidy performance against one of the worst teams in the NFL if it appeared to be an aberration, but this Falcons team came into Tampa on the heels of four straight losses, including two against very bad teams (Cleveland and Detroit), and a win over a similarly bad Washington team. In short, I am not going to get excited about this two-game winning streak and I would take the Cowboys on Saturday night as long as the spread is less than seven.
Why am I so glum about the Falcons? Maybe it starts with the fact that the team had two good drives all game. The first one ended on an interception in the end zone that was the result of either an inaccurate pass from Vick (where have we heard that before?) or a screw-up by Ashley Lelie not getting to the right spot in the end zone (and Falcons receivers NEVER screw up. Speaking of which, I loved it that Fox had the montage of drops by Falcons receivers all cued up the moment an Atlanta receiver, in this case Alge Crumpler, dropped a pass.) The second drive was a nice 71-yard march that ended with Justin Griffith, the team's fullback/third tailback, faking Will Allen into the ground at the ten-yard line and waltzing into the end zone. Tampa has a decent defense, but there's no excuse for the Falcons to fail to score against them in the first half.
The team won the game, in all likelihood, because of John Abraham stripping Bruce Gradkowski of the ball. (Nice to see you, John!) The Falcons then enjoyed the good fortune of the ball popping out of a scrum right to Demorrio Williams' feet. Demorrio isn't very good at playing the run, but he did show that he's extremely fast for a linebacker. That play put the Falcons up 7-6 and then they finally stopped pressing. The defense does deserve a lot of credit for shutting Tampa down, but that's one crappy offense, so who knows how much we can tell from it. I'm not as positive on Atlanta's ability to match Allen Rossum up against either Terry Glenn or Terrell Owens on Saturday night. The Falcons do one thing well - run the ball - and their two starting tailbacks are questionable. This does not look good.
Speaking of the Cowboys, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Saints destroy them last night. I know I'm not supposed to like the Saints because of the whole "rivalry" between them and the Falcons, but I tend to think that most rivalries in the NFL are BS, anyway. Additionally, both teams have miserable histories, so their rivalry seems to me to be like a military rivalry between France and Italy. Finally, it's hard for me to dislike any team from New Orleans because that town is so cool. I can certainly work myself up to dislike teams from Tampa, knowing the hordes of IROC-driving, RATT-listening mullets that worship the Bucs. In a pinch, I can also get myself to dislike teams from Charlotte by convincing myself that it's the U.S.'s Frankfurt, but even then, I find it hard to really get the blood boiling. (I was probably spoiled in college, where it was just so easy to root against teams from central Ohio or South Bend. You've been to those places, right?) Long story short, I've had a great time every time I've been to the City that Law Forgot and I felt this way long before they became America's team.
I had a strange feeling of deja vu when watching the Saints last night and then I was able to put my finger on it: they're the NFL version of Ohio State, at least offensively. They both enjoy great success against good defenses by spreading their opponents out and then just passing them silly. Brees reminds me of a slightly-less mobile Troy Smith (more kudos to Herbstreit for making the comparison); they're both slightly undersized, but they're great decision-makers, they're accurate, and most importantly, they have a terrific sense for how long they have to get rid of the ball. This is the key to making a four- or five-wide set work. The natural defensive response is to blitz or at least to rush four and get pressure, knowing that there are no backs or tight ends to help the offensive line. A quarterback without a feel for the rush or the ability to make decisions quickly (like, say, the Falcons' starter) would be a disaster in that offense, but Brees and Smith are untouchable in it. New Orleans also has the other elements that make the Ohio State offense so good: a blindingly-fast game-breaker (Reggie Bush and Devery Henderson both play the Ted Ginn role); a classic, between-the-tackles runner to keep the defense honest (Deuce McAllister plays the Antonio Pittman/Chris Wells role); depth at wide receiver; and a line that pass-blocks well. I'm not at all sold on the Saints' defense and that might ultimately be their undoing, but their offense is excellent. A Saints/Bears NFC Title Game would be outstanding, featuring the Bears' cover-two against the Saints' spread sets.
One other aspect of the game last night that tickled me: my friend Ben is a huge Saints fan. My friend Ben also proclaimed years ago that the spread is dead. Now, his team looks like a Super Bowl contender, largely by virtue of a spread offense. Paging Alanis Morisette...