Monday, October 3, 2011

The Widening Gyre

The Falcons are in trouble. Maybe it's not quite time to mash the panic button in Atlanta yet, but they might want to hire an intern to permanently stand in the room where it's located, just in case.

Before the season started, Atlanta made a heady leap in terms of perception around the league. Last year's 13-3 season, coupled with the additions of Julio Jones and Ray Edwards via the draft and free agency, had most analysts projecting them as strong Super Bowl contenders. The Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era has been promising from the outset, but the critical difference this year is that they were no longer just another good team with the potential for success, they were now considered "elite." Even accounting for that embarrassing meltdown against the Packers in last year's playoffs, the consensus was that they were ready to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league in 2011. It seemed obvious. Of course they were going to wreck inferior teams. Of course they were going to make the playoffs. Of course. Then the actual games started, and all that certainty was transfigured into what is currently a miasma of doubt.

Yesterday's cardiac-inducing near-collapse against the lowly Seahawks was just the latest in a series of red flags that have grown progressively more alarming with every week. After a dominant first half, the Falcons appeared to have the game well in hand, but they left the ability to execute, and their swagger, in the locker room at halftime. Seattle's vaunted home-field advantage notwithstanding, putting up a total of two field goals in the last 30 minutes against the Seahawks' terrible defense is inexcusable for a team with the caliber and variety of weapons Atlanta has. And the anemic offense wasn't nearly the most disturbing part. That would be the pathetic inability to contain, let alone stop, one of the league's worst offenses.

Well, that's not entirely fair. Atlanta was actually downright stingy with run defense, holding the Seahawks to a total of just 53 rushing yards so, you know, put that in the "positives" column from yesterday ... HOWEVER: Tavaris Jackson hung 319 passing yards and 3 touchdowns on the Falcons. Yeah, Tavaris Jackson. A washed-up, never-was QB exercised his will on Atlanta all day, and this team was supposed to compete with Green Bay and Philly?

In the end, thanks to Matt Bryant's 42-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, the Falcons got out of CenturyLink Field with a 30-28 win. At least, the record books will show it as such. In actuality, it was a sign of impending disaster.

The thing is, this is about much more than just one bad performance, or even the general lackluster atmosphere of the early season. It's deeper than the oft-bandied sentiment that Atlanta is lacking in true offensive identity. The outside factors that used to be crutches for the Falcons have been drastically reduced this season.

In the recent past, playing in the NFC South has given Atlanta the benefit of playing the Bucs and Panthers twice a year, games that you could mostly pencil in as automatic victories. It was almost like having a free pass to a decent divisional record. Split the games with the Saints and play decent ball the rest of the season, and the Falcons were going to be OK. That's not the case anymore. In Tampa Bay, Josh Freeman is more than making good on the promise he showed last season, and his poise and leadership have guided the Bucs to a 2-1 record. Then there's the "no one saw this coming!" phenomenon that is Cam Newton. Yes, Carolina still has many problems, and they're still a vastly inferior team to Atlanta, but if the Falcons' pass D plays the Panthers like they played Seattle, Newton is going throw for 6 billion yards and 11 TDs. That's hyperbolic, obviously, but you take my point.

In this suddenly competitive division, the Falcons have their work cut out for them. In my opinion, they need to win at least two of their three remaining games before the bye week to stay relevant, and that's a difficult proposition at best. The schedule leading into the bye: vs. Green Bay, vs. Carolina, @ Detroit. Yikes.

When last they met in the 2010 playoffs, Green Bay destroyed Atlanta in the Georgia Dome. The Packers are playing inspired football so far this year, kicking off their title defense with a 4-0 record. Given their dominance, and Atlanta's relative listlessness, nothing indicates that next week's game will end differently from their previous encounter.

Then there's the aforementioned Cam Newton and Carolina. At 1-3, the Panthers represent the most winnable of those three contests, but Newton's proclivity for putting up monster passing numbers poses a serious threat, especially since no one in the Falcons' secondary is equipped to cover a suddenly-rejuvenated Steve Smith all game long. The Falcons will have to pray that Newton's 1-for-1 TD/INT ratio is on full display, and that Matt Ryan, Michale Turner, and co. can perform as expected against Carolina's abysmal defense. They should still win this game, but at this point, should is looking somewhat elusive.

Detroit used to be another gimme game, but as you're no doubt aware, that too is different this year. Matthew Stafford is finally realizing the potential that has largely been derailed by injuries since he entered the league, Calvin Johnson is doing Calvin Johnson things, and that fearsome defensive line is no joke. Ndamukong Suh in particular is making no bones about his intent to deliver punishment to opposing QBs, league regulations be damned. Given how terrible Atlanta's offensive line has been so far this season, Matt Ryan might want to get himself one of those kevlar vests that Tony Romo's been wearing to protect his busted ribs. Oh yes, and the Lions are also 4-0.

To sum up: two of Atlanta's next three games are against the only two undefeated teams left in the NFL, and the third is against an otherwise mediocre team whose only strength happens to be perfectly aligned to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness.

At the quarter-mark of the season, Atlatna is 2-2 in a divison where .500 is not going to get it done. If they can't make some major adjustments, quickly, the promise of this team runs the risk of not just going unrealized, but of coming off as downright false in hindsight.

They were supposed to be a rough beast, but right now the only thing the Falcons are slouching towards is a season that ends far earlier than expected.

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