In the NFC, a Falcon crest is taking place
The Falcons are going to have to come up with a better answer to the question of whether they are the best team in the NFC.
“[Linebacker] Curtis Lofton went on television and he said that we were an upper-tier team,’’ said general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “I still struggle with saying that, period. I guess that’s my background from being in New England.’’
Yes, the Patriots’ director of college scouting from 2003-07 still has his moments of Belichickian influence, but it’s getting hard to argue the Falcons’ place in the pecking order after they knocked off the Packers, 20-17, last week to improve to 9-2, one game ahead of the Bears and Saints.
The Falcons have matched their win total from last season, when even though there were key injuries to quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner — among others — they weren’t happy finishing a distant second in the NFC South and missing the playoffs.
The previous season — the first for Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith, and Ryan in Atlanta — the Falcons went 11-5 to capture a wild-card berth. They fell in the first round of the playoffs against the Cardinals.
Truth be told, Dimitroff and Smith think their first two seasons should have been reversed — 9-7 followed by 11-5.
“Our expectations were quite substantial last year, and I know I can speak for myself and Smitty and [owner] Arthur Blank in saying we were all quite agitated with the 9-7 record because we just expected more from the group as a whole and we were still in the growth stages, no question about it,’’ said Dimitroff.
But the case is there to be made that if the Falcons didn’t go through last season’s hardships — a 4-1 start was wiped out by a 2-6 stretch, followed by a 3-0 finish — they might not be where they are now.
“The end of last year, we started to learn how it was to be resilient, to persevere through issues, whether they’re injuries or the inconsistencies and growing pains of a young football team,’’ Dimitroff said. “And I think that carried over into the beginning part of this year.
“We’ve been down to the seconds in a number of games and I think in the end — and I’m hoping and I believe it’s going to pay dividends — having been in those tight situations and not panicking and believing in the team is something that is sort of the overriding thing when you’re down on the sideline.
“Smitty mentioned it after last game. This team doesn’t blink. They’re not looking all starry-eyed at the opponent that is across the line. They believe that they can compete with the very good football teams in this league.’’
So far, they have. The Falcons lost the season opener at Pittsburgh, 15-9, but have knocked off the Saints (27-24 on the road), Buccaneers (27-21), Ravens (26-21), and Packers.
A big reason for the success has been the maturation of third-year players such as defensive end Kroy Biermann, cornerback Brent Grimes, safety Thomas DeCoud, and Lofton.
“We have a bunch of guys that are in their third year in the system,’’ Dimitroff said. “They are really starting to feel comfortable with this game and the technique and becoming more focused with maturity.’’
And, of course, the duo of Ryan and receiver Roddy White now ranks among the league’s best. White leads the league with 84 receptions and is second in yards (1,066).
“Roddy White is, in my mind, one of the top three receivers, if not the top receiver in this league right now,’’ Dimitroff said. “I think the thing that is so impressive, given his athleticism and speed and the position he plays, he works hard every day.
“He’s very, very competitive. He’s a former high school wrestler, so he’s not taking it just from anyone. He’s a guy that’s going to stand up for his team and he’s going to be a physical player. It’s impressive to see him mature as well. His focus has ramped up.’’
Ryan has become a bona fide MVP candidate as he continues to live up to his “Matty Ice’’ nickname with several clutch performances. He has won 15 straight home starts and is 19-1 all time at the Georgia Dome.
If that is reminiscent of Tom Brady’s 25-game regular-season winning streak at Gillette Stadium, it’s no accident. Dimitroff used Brady as the model when he and Smith went looking for a franchise quarterback in the 2008 draft.
“I think that was a real benefit for me, to see what a complete-package quarterback was about both on and off the field,’’ Dimitroff said. “And I really — again, unfair to compare with all the history of Tom — I feel that they possess a lot of similar traits on and off the field.
“How they handle pressure, how they lead, their intelligence level, their passion for the game, their resiliency, their toughness to get up after a hit and get fired up that much more to have the winning drive in the palm of their hand, moving the ball down the field when it counts.
“I thought Tom had an uncanny ability to move in the pocket, ad lib, and make off-balance throws. I thought Matt possessed a real nice feel for the pocket and ad-libbing. That’s really something that really stood out to me personally.
“I think in this league you can look pretty good getting back when everything’s fine and the line is operating in synch. But when things go awry, you need your quarterback to adapt and ad-lib, and I think that’s a nice quality that Matt possesses.’’
CASSEL AND BOWE CONNECT
Chiefs draw strength from this combinationAnother quarterback-receiver combination that has taken off is Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe with the Chiefs.
What happened last Sunday in a 42-24 victory at Seattle showed how close the two are getting. It wasn’t exactly Len Dawson and Otis Taylor drawing up a play in the Shea Stadium dirt to help beat the Jets in the 1969 AFL playoffs, but it will do.
Cassel and Bowe worked things out on the Qwest Field turf, including a third-and-1 play when Cassel hit Bowe on a slant-and-go for 17 yards to set up the final touchdown.
“There were some plays, because of what was occurring in the game, that we had to draw a couple in the dirt that Matt and Dwayne specifically executed to perfection,’’ said coach Todd Haley.
“I don’t think you can make a living on [that], but in my past experiences, when you can have a quarterback and a receiver who can do that according to what you’re seeing, that’s a really good sign. A couple of the plays were not things we practiced.
“There’s something about when you’re able to do that in a game that just builds confidence and helps you as you move forward, not just in that game, but overall.’’
There were 13 hookups between Bowe, the 23d overall selection in the 2007 draft out of LSU, and Cassel, the former Patriots backup quarterback.
Bowe now has a league-leading 14 touchdown receptions. That’s the most through 11 games since Randy Moss had 16 for the Patriots in ’07. Bowe has already set team records for touchdowns in a season and consecutive games with a touchdown catch (seven and counting).
Cassel, who was the target of boos earlier this season, has thrown 127 consecutive passes without an interception. He’s tied for third in the AFC with 22 touchdown passes, and his passer rating of 99.7 trails only Tom Brady (105.8) and Philip Rivers (104.9).
“It starts with an identity and it starts with the run game,’’ Cassel said. “The run game is something that’s been consistent for us throughout the entire year. It starts with the offensive line as well. The pass game, the play-action, all of that comes off of having a good running game.’’
After putting up 102 points over their last three games, the Chiefs are scoring 26 per game for the season. That trails only the Patriots, Eagles, and Chargers.
“I can’t say early on I could envision where we are at this point,’’ Cassel said.
TIGHTER AND TIGHTER
Postseason contenders are coming in bunchesIt’s setting up to be one wild and crazy final month of the season.
Entering Week 13, there are 19 teams either in first place or within one game, the most at this point of a season in league history.
And for the first time, all eight divisions have at least two teams either in first place or within one game through 12 weeks.
If the playoffs started today, the Chargers and Colts would be out and the Chiefs and Jaguars would be dancing in the AFC.
In the NFC, the Buccaneers and Packers (both 7-4) would be watching while the Rams (5-6) would be in as the winners of the NFC West, where the Seahawks are also 5-6 and the 49ers aren’t yet out of it at 4-7.
Don’t laugh. The AFC South isn’t much better.
If the Colts lose at home to the Cowboys — certainly within the realm of possibility — and the Titans knock off the Jaguars, then Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Jacksonville would all be tied for first place at 6-6.
Along with the Colts, the Packers probably have the most pressure this weekend, though they are heavily favored against the 49ers. A loss would drop them two games behind the Bears (who play the Lions) and to 5-4 in the conference. It would be very tough to make the playoffs from there.
A look at the teams within one game of first place and/or one game of .500, ranked in order of strength of schedule:
NFC: Bears and Saints (.564), Redskins and Packers (.545), Buccaneers (.527), Giants (.509), Rams (.491), Seahawks and 49ers (.473), Falcons (.400), Eagles (.386).
“December is such a critical time for all the teams in our league,’’ said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, whose team needs a win at home against the Redskins to keep pace with the Eagles. “There isn’t any question about the season being a marathon and not a sprint.
“There are different facets of everyone’s schedule that have to be recognized, and no matter how you do it, we do it in phases. The reason it is the NFL and the reason it is so meaningful to be division champion and, of course, Super Bowl champion is because it is a grind.’’ p>Etc.
Williams sets up shop on corner in Green Bay Quite a rags-to-riches story transpired in Green Bay when former undrafted free agent Tramon Williams signed a contract extension through 2014 worth about $8.27 million per season, which ranks fourth on the Packers and 14th among all NFL cornerbacks. The Texans signed and cut Williams in ’06, and he worked out for various teams until the Packers signed him to their practice squad that November. A knee injury to Al Harris last season allowed Williams to crack the starting lineup, and he’s become a top cover corner. He has allowed no touchdown passes and just two passes of 20 yards or more. He has merely one penalty, and he has done it matched against the top receivers on other teams.
Purple are black and blue The Vikings could be facing a Bills defense that’s ranked last in the league against the run without running back Adrian Peterson (ankle) and left guard Steve Hutchinson, who have 10 All-Pro selections between them. Rookies Chris DeGeare and Toby Gerhart could be making their first career starts together at guard and running back. Hutchinson broke his right thumb in last Sunday’s win against the Redskins. Not a good injury for a lineman, but he has started 131 consecutive games, so he’ll likely give it a go.
Heat in Dallas Two young Cowboys, running back Tashard Choice and receiver Dez Bryant, are taking some criticism. Owner Jerry Jones called out Choice for not playing well on special teams. “Your third back has to be a real contributor on special teams, and he’s not,’’ Jones said. Choice, normally talkative, barely commented. “It’s best for me not to say anything,’’ said Choice, who is on pace for 20 carries after having 92 and 64 the last two years. Bryant had several emotional outbursts on the sideline during the Thanksgiving loss, as he went through the first catchless game of his career. While interim coach Jason Garrett defended Bryant, he didn’t deny that Bryant became a distraction as he complained about a penalty and was taken out of the game.
A levelheaded decision Kudos to Jaguars tackle Eugene Monroe for sitting out last Sunday’s loss to the Giants with a concussion even though the team’s medical people thought he would be able to play. “By the end of the week, I was doing better and I guess they expected things to clear up by game time, but they didn’t,’’ said Monroe. “This isn’t something that can be rushed. The brain needs time to heal.’’
Homing in on a replay problem The NFL still doesn’t get it. On NFL Network, director of officiating Ray Anderson was asked about a fourth-down play on which Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed a 6-yard pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez with about three minutes left in the first half. Anderson admitted it wasn’t a catch. But because the Falcons hurried to the line and the Fox network ran just one mediocre replay, the Packers didn’t have enough information to challenge. The Falcons went on to score a touchdown just before halftime in a game they won, 20-17, on the final possession. Anderson shrugged at the blatant advantage for home teams on replays, since coaches in the booths are relegated to watching the same replays viewers get at home. “The TV networks aren’t obligated to show replays,’’ Anderson said. “[Replays] inside the stadiums, it’s home-field advantage. That’s part of the home-field advantage. You have eight games at home, eight on the road. It balances out.’’ The goal of replay is to get crucial plays right. Not having a separate replay system available in the coaches’ booths goes against that.
By the numbers 1: Times in league history that a team had a running back and receiver with 170 yards each in the same regular-season game. Jamaal Charles (173) and Dwayne Bowe (170) did it last weekend for the Chiefs against the Seahawks. The only other instance was Super Bowl XXII, when Timmy Smith rushed for 204 and receiver Ricky Sanders had 193 for the Redskins.
3: Overtime losses by the Bills. It’s just the fifth time that’s happened in a season and first since the Cardinals in ’97. All of the Bills’ nine losses have come vs. teams with winning records.
8: Interceptions returned for touchdowns since the start of the ’06 season by Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, which leads the league. Teammate Nick Collins is tied for second with four.
510: Passing yards for Saints quarterback Drew Brees — a career high — the last time he faced today’s opponent, the Bengals, in ’06.
View from the outside The guys at Boston-based FootballOutsiders.com debuted their “player similarity scores’’ this week. It gives a glance at how today’s players over a three-year span (2007-09) compare to similar players. A Patriots sampling: Wes Welker — Keyshawn Johnson (Jets, 1999-2001); Deion Branch — Floyd Turner (Colts and Ravens, ’94-96); Fred Taylor — Garrison Hearst (49ers and Broncos, ’02-04); Kevin Faulk — Freeman McNeil (Jets, ’89-91); Vince Wilfork — Kelly Gregg (Ravens, ’02-04); Brandon Meriweather — Adrian Wilson (Cardinals, ’01-03), Ty Warren — Rick Lyle (Jets, ’97-99). Tom Brady’s knee injury eliminates him from the three-year study, but his ’09 campaign most compares to Peyton Manning in ’06. And Jerod Mayo (two years) compares to Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny (same ’08-09 period).
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.