The Atlanta Falcons delivered their fans an early Christmas gift on Christmas Eve and a few hours later the New Orleans Saints delivered one to the Falcons.
For the third week in a row the Falcons more than doubled up on an opponent winning 33-16 over Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers to secure a playoff spot. Four hours later the Saints did a rare good deed for Atlanta and defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hand the Falcons their first division championship since 2012.
To add a little intrigue to what was a magical Christmas Eve, the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Seattle Seahawks late putting Atlanta in the number two seed in the NFC playoffs – all dependant of the outcome of the season finale. The Falcons control their own destiny as far as that’s concerned. If they win their season finale on New Years Day they will be the number two seed and earn a bye week. If they lose, Seattle can recapture the number two seed if they win their last game. But things are looking good for the Dirty Birds.
It’s been a struggle not wanting to jump back on the Falcon bandwagon. Don’t be mistaken, I’ve always been a fan but after the collapse last season after beginning 6-0, I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. So far so good. Except for a season opening loss to Tampa Bay, Atlanta has either been in first place or tied for first place. And with the convincing win Saturday over last year’s Super Bowl participants, things are looking up.
The offense was humming on all cylinders at Carolina as Matt Ryan got off to a hot start completing his first ten passes as Atlanta led from start to finish. Ryan led the team on the opening drive moving the Falcons 75 yards on eight plays finishing things off by hitting Joshua Perkins from 25 yards out.
After a disastrous 2015 season where pundits and some fans wanted Ryan to be let go the team has jelled this year offensive in OC Kyle Shanihan’s second year at the helm. Ryan and Shanihan have worked well this season as Atlanta has put up historic numbers on offense and Ryan marches toward the league MVP award as he’s second in the league in touchdown passes, third in yards and number one in yards per attempt and quarterback rating. With his 27-of-33 performance Saturday he extends his NFL record of consecutive games passing for at least 200 yards.
The running game didn’t take a backseat Saturday to the passing offense as Tevin Coleman gain 135 yards on offense – 90 on the ground including a 55 yard touchdown run that put the game on ice.
The suspect Falcon defense that has been a train wreck for a number of seasons and started slow this season has shown over the past weeks the ability to shut down defenders and force turnovers. Last year’s league MVP Cam Newton completed less than 50 percent of his passes and was intercepted twice as the Falcons led by Vic Beasley Jr. kept him off balance. To give you an idea of how the Falcons have improved on their defensive line, Beasley has 14.5 sacks going into the season finale against New Orleans. He leads the league in sacks and when you take into consideration that last year’s team only had 19 sacks total, it’s pretty impressive.
Ever since the loss to KC last month the Falcons have scored 113 points the last three games while only giving up 43. In other words they’ve outscored their opponents on average by 25 points.
“It wasn’t a very good day for us, especially offensively. They got off to a good start; we got off to a poor start. We were never really able to find our groove. We didn’t give ourselves much of a chance,” said Carolina tight end Greg Olsen who was the one bright spot for the Panthers. Olsen caught six passes for 59 yards surpassing the 1,000 yard mark receiving and making the NFL record books for being the only tight end to accomplish that feat for three seasons.
Not to be outdone, Ryan set and NFL record by throwing touchdown passes during the course of the season to 13 different receivers, with the most recent added to the list being D.J. Tialavea who caught his first career pass for a touchdown, capping a whirlwind week for the receiver who was signed from the practice squad this week with stories circulating around Flowery Branch that he had been walking to and from practice because he did not have a car at his disposal.
The Falcons finish out the regular season Sunday as they host the New Orleans Saints. If the Falcons win they will secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs with Dallas securing the number one seed a week or so back. If they win they will have a bye week before hosting what will be most likely the last home game in the Georgia Dome for the Falcons. Thanks right, Sunday will be the last regular season home game at the Georgia Dome for Atlanta who has called the stadium home since 1992. Next season they begin play down the street at the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:25pm and the game will be aired on Fox.
– Dave Weinthal
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