Falcons just take care of business
Meet the Atlanta Falcons:
Methodical. Disciplined. Resourceful.
And, perhaps, a team that doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves.
The Falcons weren’t the popular pick to win the NFC South at the beginning of the season. That would be the New Orleans Saints, who were knocked out of the playoffs in the wild-card round.
The Falcons weren’t the media darlings of the NFL. Coach Mike Smith is the polar opposite of the New York Jets’ bombastic Rex Ryan. Quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t plugged into the league’s hype machine, at least not like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or even the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.
Yet, here are the Falcons, 13-3 and the top-seeded team in the NFC, getting ready to play host to the Packers in a divisional round playoff game at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
How and why are they so good?
“They’re fundamentally sound,” said Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. “This team overall—special teams, offense, defense, all across the board—they don’t hurt themselves. You have to beat them; they won’t beat themselves.
“As simple as that seems, it’s tough to beat a team like that.”
The Falcons might not be the NFL’s sexiest team, but they have balance on offense, sound structure and scheme on defense, a special teams ace in Eric Weems and an accurate kicker in Matt Bryant.
It’s a winning formula. Atlanta beat Green Bay, 20-17, on Nov. 28 because it made fewer mistakes. The Falcons were one of just two teams—New England was the other—that didn’t turn the ball over against the Packers this season.
Atlanta also was penalized four times to the Packers’ eight and limited Green Bay to seven possessions (not including a kneel-down at the end of the first half and one play at the end of the game). The Packers had just 59 offensive plays.
The Falcons rank third in the NFL in time of possession and third in scoring efficiency (39.3% of their possessions end in points). They also are the least-penalized team in the league with 58 accepted penalties, and they are third in turnover differential at plus-14.
That’s a difficult combination for opponents to overcome.
“Their time of possession is definitely something that is a positive for their offense,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “Their defense doesn’t give up the big play. They make you go the distance. It’s important for us to take advantage of every possession and get points out of those possessions.”
On offense, the Falcons are balanced between run and pass. Running back Michael Turner rushed for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns and receiver Roddy White caught 115 passes for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. Old pro Tony Gonzalez remains a threat at tight end.
“When you have the balance with the run and the pass, with a good quarterback like (Ryan), I think it’s better than having just a great passing game or just a great running game,” said linebacker Desmond Bishop. “You can’t stack the box up for the run, and you can’t tee off on the quarterback.”
In the Nov. 28 game, Turner ran through arm tackles and rushed for 110 yards in 23 carries (4.8) and a touchdown. The Falcons’ success on the ground helped play-action and Ryan threw only four incomplete passes (24 for 28).
“First and foremost, we will try to get the run stopped on the early downs,” said defensive end Cullen Jenkins. “If not, they have the whole playbook open and they’ll be able to do whatever.
“If you can get them stopped on first and second down and get them to throw on third down it helps you out a little more.”
Ryan has a 20-2 record at the Georgia Dome as a starter and has thrown for 3,705 yards and 28 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.
“I have a lot of respect for the way he plays,” Rodgers said.
said“I think he delivers the ball on time, he gets the ball out of his hands, doesn’t take a lot of sacks. He obviously played at a Pro Bowl level this season, and he’s tough to beat at home.”
On defense, the Falcons don’t have many superstars, but they rarely give up big plays and rank fifth in the NFL in points allowed (18.0).
“We’ve just got to go into this game knowing that we may have seven or eight opportunities,” said receiver Donald Driver. “We have to make sure that every one of those seven or eight opportunities count.”
The Falcons’ discipline under Smith shows up in other ways. They are 27-1 when they have the lead at halftime (9-0 this season) and rank No..1 in the NFL in kick-return average and fourth-down efficiency.
On top of that, Weems is a Pro Bowl returner (27.5-yard average on kickoffs, 12.8 on punts) and Bryant has made 28 of 31 field goal attempts.
But the Falcons obviously are not unbeatable. They lost three games, including one to the same Philadelphia team the Packers just beat. And on Nov. 28, Rodgers lost a fumble on the goal line in a three-point loss.
“We’d be lying if we didn’t say we wanted a little bit of revenge,” Bishop said. “I think we’ve got real confidence. We feel like we match up well against them, and we’re going to be ready to go.”