With rout of Chargers, Falcons feeling something special in the air
After recent playoff letdowns, the Falcons believe they can be special this season
A run-heavy team in the past, the Falcons are now emphasizing the passing game
New coordinators have pumped life into units that have underwhelmed at times
SAN DIEGO -- On his way to meet with the media Sunday afternoon, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan stopped in a bathroom to make sure everything was in place. He brushed his teeth, rubbed Chapstick on his lips, wiped away the excess, then checked his hair to make sure there were no stray locks. By the time he walked out of the locker room and down a hall to a storage room that had been converted into a press area, he looked and felt good in his blue jeans and plaid shirt.
Still, Ryan's casual cool paled in comparison to how he and his teammates looked on the field in the Falcons' 27-3 victory over the Chargers. To say they made themselves at home in Qualcomm Stadium would be tantamount to saying San Diego has nice weather. On his first drive he completed seven of eight passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. By halftime, he was 22 of 29 for 208 yards, three scores, a 129.7 rating and a 20-0 lead. By early in the fourth quarter, the crowd was so sparse the stadium resembled a San Diego State game.
It was not completely dissimilar to the previous Monday night, when the Falcons jumped all over Peyton Manning and the Broncos en route to a win that seemed more lopsided than its six-point final difference. If there were any doubts about whether Atlanta (3-0) belonged in the conversation for serious Super Bowl contenders after that performance, they were erased against the Chargers. Simultaneously frustrated by an 0-3 playoff mark over the past four years, yet buoyed by scheme changes on offense and defense, the Falcons are playing with the type of speed, confidence and camaraderie that often foreshadows even better days.
"I feel like we're onto something special," said cornerback Dunta Robinson. "I know it's only the third game of the season and we've still got a lot of football left, but we've been together for a long time and we feel like we can come out here and do some special things. We can be as good as we want to be. We've just got to continue to work and believe in ourselves."
Even if others are slow to do so. The Falcons have been good since 2008, when general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith arrived. They've averaged nearly 11 wins during that time, with one division title. Still, they were one-and-done in each of their playoff trips -- in '08, '09 and again last season.
But this squad has a different feel to it. It plays faster, looser. "The confidence level across the board is probably as high as it's ever been," said Ryan. "That's not to say we haven't been confident in the past; we've had some good football teams in the past. We're only three weeks into it, but collectively we've played some really good football."
As in only one turnover on offense. As in 11 takeaways on defense, including four against the Chargers. As in a league-leading plus-10 turnover differential. As in traveling to the West Coast after a Monday night game for the first time of the Smith Era and dominating an undefeated opponent in its own house. As in holding an offense that ranked in the top five in scoring each of the previous eight years to its lowest points total since Nov. 24, 2002, when the Chargers lost 30-3 at Miami.
Much has been made about the Falcons' change in coordinators and whether the offense and defense had stagnated under Mike Mularkey (offense) and Brian VanGorder (defense) in years past. Mularkey left to become the Jaguars' head coach; VanGorder to coordinate Auburn's defense. Whether they would've been asked to leave if those jobs hadn't opened is a subject for debate. What cannot be disputed is that the units are playing with more speed and cohesion under replacements Dirk Koetter (offense) and Mike Nolan (defense).
"We're more relaxed," said end Jon Abraham. "Mike has confidence in us and we're able to talk to him and he listens to what we want. There's no screaming and yelling when something goes wrong. It's more like, 'I messed up. Let's get it right.' It's easy to play fast when you know what you're doing and you're comfortable with what you're doing and don't have to worry about messing up. It's kind of bad when you mess up and you know it's going to be harped on and it's something that you're going to have to worry about in the meeting the next morning. We're really not that team anymore."
Nor are they the same on offense. They are an up-tempo, no-huddle passing attack, unlike previous years when they were ground-based and almost plodding in their approach. Ryan seems to have found a kindred spirit in Koetter, a former college quarterback who seems to be in sync with his young star.
Then again, it only makes sense to open up the offense with big, physical, athletic talents like Julio Jones and Roddy White at wide receiver and Tony Gonzalez at tight end. The trio has combined for 55 of the team's 77 receptions, 647 of its 793 yards and seven of its eight touchdowns.
"We know what we want to do this season, and when we get those opportunities to hit those passes we know we have to hit them," said White. "The last couple of years it's been a big thing where we have missed a lot of plays that we should have hit, but finally now we're all on the same page and it looks really good."
And when defenses try to take away the pass, the Falcons can return to Michael Turner and their punishing ground game. It churned out 91 yards on 15 carries in the second half after producing just 28 on 11 rushes in the opening two quarters. No player has had to check his ego more than Turner, who ran for more than 1,300 yards in three of the past four years. Over those three seasons he averaged 337 carries a year. This season, however, he's on pace for 224.
"You do have to check yourself sometimes," he said. "It's a learning process for me to figure out how I'm going to fit in there and how I'm going to be effective and successful individually as well as team wise. But I'm going to find my groove and we'll be all right. Right now we're just feeding off each other and want to see each other succeed, not that it wasn't that way before. But this year it just seems like we're more of a family."
The patriarch is Smith, the gentlemanly white-haired coach who is simultaneously excited and wary. He likes what he sees, but knows the season is a marathon and his club has yet to conclude the first mile. At the same time, he can sense something special.
"We have a bunch of guys that enjoy being around each other," he said. "I say this all the time, but you win in the locker room first. This is a group of guys that knows what it is to work hard, and they know how to have fun. When you have those pieces in place it enhances your chances for success."
The Chargers will attest to that.