At the end of the Falcons-Eagles game last night, I had the same feeling as I did after Michigan-Notre Dame: should I be happy that my team won or concerned by the manner in which they won. On the one hand, the Falcons got a critical win to avoid an 0-2 start. They kept pace with the Saints and Bucs. They came off the mat when they were down by ten in the fourth quarter. With the game in the balance, they mounted two long touchdown drives against a defense that had been shelling them for most of the game. And they did all of this against a team that is clearly one of the two best in the NFC. (The hierarchy in the NFC: Green Bay and Philly are clearly on top, the Saints are third, and then everyone else fills in behind in some convoluted order.)
On the other hand, yeesh. The Falcons pretty clearly won because Michael Vick sustained an injury in the third quarter. Prior to Vick’s injury, the Eagles were pretty much moving the ball on the Falcons at will. After the injury, the Eagles had to deploy third-string quarterback Mike Kafka, leading a bunch of NFL types to make the same Metamorphosis jokes that college fans exhausted several years ago. Despite this good fortune, the Falcons still let the Eagles mount a late drive, a drive that ended not because the Falcons made a great defensive play, but rather because Jeremy Maclin – a player who had killed the Falcons all night – dropped a pass on fourth down. At one point before Vick’s injury, the Falcons were being outgained 350 to 152. The local pro football collective looked at times like they belonged in the NFC West. Only the good fortune of scoring touchdowns after a lengthy fumble return by Ray Edwards (great play by Peria Jerry to force the fumble, but everything that happened thereafter was luck) and then an interception that wasn’t really an interception by Kelvin Hayden* had kept the Falcons in the game in the middle stretches.
* – All of Andy Reid’s game management issues that Bill Simmons has lampooned for years were on display in this game. Reid erred by not using his timeouts at the end of the first half when the Falcons were inside the Eagles ten and time clearly wasn’t an issue. He didn’t challenge the Hayden pick. He wasted a timeout discussing the fourth down play at the end with Kafka, thus depriving the Eagles of a chance to mount a drive after the fourth down attempt failed. Reid is a good coach in most areas, but he is usually found wanting in the areas that fans can most easily judge.
There was really no aspect of the Falcons team that looked good. The running game was productive on Michael Turner’s first two and last two carries, but in between, there was a whole lot of nothing. Matt Ryan threw two picks and averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt. Whether the failings of the passing game were the result of Ryan playing poorly or the offensive line getting abused on just about every dropback is an open question. If the NFL is a passing league and the key on defense is getting a pass rush without blitzing, then Eagles fans have to be feeling a lot better than Falcons fans this morning. On defense, the Falcons struggled to cover Maclin and DeSean Jackson and they didn’t get a sack on any of the Eagles’ 37 pass attempts. But hey, the Falcons injured Vick by throwing him into one of his teammates, so there’s that.
On the surface level, this was a win straight out of the 2010 playbook in that the Falcons got outgained, but still managed to beat a good opponent. However, the formula isn’t even working anymore. The Falcons won last year despite pedestrian yardage numbers because of three strengths, but none of the strengths were evident last night:
1. They were fourth in the NFL in first downs, showing a low variance offense that was able to control the clock and score. Last night, the Eagles had 27 first downs to the Falcons’ 20.
2. They were third in the NFL in fewest turnovers surrendered. Last night, the Falcons threw a pair of picks. In a similar vein, the Falcons were third in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed, but last night, Ryan was sacked four times and was running for his life on most of the rest of his dropbacks.
3. They were excellent on special teams. Last night, the Falcons had an 18-yard punt from Matt Bosher (Bosher is a major step down from Michael Koenen) and also saw Pro Bowler Eric Weems make a series of dreadful decisions on punt and kickoff returns.
There are two possibilities here. The first is that the Falcons simply played two bad games to start the season and they will right the ship in the coming weeks. The second is that the 13-3 season in 2010 was a mirage based on factors that will not or cannot be repeated and regression to the mean is going to hit with force this fall. I’m leaning towards the latter.