Defense has bailed the Falcons out enough times to take credit for dragging the team into the playoffs as a wildcard. The leagues’ ninth-ranked defense held Cam Newton and the Carolina offense to a ridiculously low 248 yards and one touchdown to give the Falcons a 22-10 victory over the Panthers.
Atlanta’s defense sacked Newton twice, intercepted him three times, and kept the Panthers offense confused and inconsistent. “We’ve always said on the defensive side that we don’t want to take anything away from our offense, we aren’t battling with them because they’re ours,” said safety Ricardo Allen who snagged one of the interceptions. “But one thing we did say is that we want to make this be known as a defensive team too.”
Opening drives are not definitive bell weathers for how a team is going to do throughout the game. Atlanta took the opening kick 75 yards in 10 plays for what could easily be described as a problem-free touchdown drive. They nearly repeated the feat in their first drive of the second half going 68 yards on 13 plays. Matt Ryan’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu was ruled incomplete after a review by the officials. Matt Bryant salvaged the drive by splitting the uprights from 30 yards out.
In those two drives, the 2017-18 Falcons looked very much like the 2016-17 version that went to the Super Bowl. But the similarities ended right there except for the play of the defense. Well, sort of. The Falcons offense went 4-4 in the red zone but with only one touchdown. Head coach Dan Quinn found a small measure of solace in the point production. “What I liked was that we came away with points,” explained Quinn. “We always want to score touchdowns.”
Two of the red zone scoring chances resulted from the solid play of the Falcons opportunistic defense. Ricardo Allen intercepted Newton’s pass intended for Brenton Bersin at the Panthers 43 to set up the first. Despite the short field, the offense only managed to move the ball 15 yards before settling for Bryant’s second field goal of the quarter.
Bryant nailed two more field goals, including one from 56 yards, before safety Keanu Neal grabbed a pass tipped by Grady Jarrett and returned it 19 yards to the Panthers 23 yard line. Three plays and eight yards later Bryant made his all to familiar trot to the traditional spot seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. And almost like clockwork, the generously stretched five-foot, nine-inch sixteen-year veteran threaded the oblong pigskin 33 yards to the netting protecting the fans in the stands.
As if knowing the game is out of reach isn’t enough of a punch in Newton’s teal blue gut, defensive back Robert Alford ended the Panthers last chance to make it look respectable by intercepting the Atlanta-native for the third time.
But a win is a win and this one was huge. Reaching the playoffs in the year after reaching the Super Bowl was not a sure thing for teams in the NFC South. New Orleans was the only team to accomplish the feat in 2010, one year after their historic run. Atlanta now has a chance to redeem itself.
The Falcons can follow the example set by six other wildcard teams that won the Super Bowl, with defense. The 1980 Oakland Raiders, 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, and 2007 New York Giants held the opposing offense to no more than 14 points. The 1997 Denver Broncos defense and 2010 Green Bay Packers defense allowed 24 and 25 points but the offenses scored 34 and 31 points respectively.
Atlanta will have to rely on its defense unless the offense pulls it together. The Falcons offense has only scored 30 points or more four times this season and the defense scored a touchdown in the Green Bay and Seattle games.
No matter, defense wins championships anyway at least for the six wildcard teams that went on to be Super Bowl champs. All six teams held their opposing offenses to 19 or fewer points in the three games leading to the marquee game. That’s a point total the Falcons can work with. Atlanta’s defense is only giving up 19.7 points per game this season. And while the offense is scoring 10 points per game less than it did last season, that’s still enough of a margin for a win. Trust the process.
all photos by Jason McDonald, CORE360 Sports