The Atlanta Falcons are 9-1 but definitely don’t have the feel of a team with just one blemish on its record. The difference between how the NFL Nation should feel about this team and how it actually does is vastly different.
The Falcons are a powerful force and the envy of every NFC team. Atlanta is a front-runner on the path to the Super Bowl.
The Falcons’ record is a façade, a smoke-and-mirror show that’s covering up too many problems for Atlanta to do any damage in the postseason.
While neither end of the spectrum is completely accurate, or fair, after the Falcons barely survived an Arizona Cardinals upset bid in Week 11, the general feeling about the franchise is that it’s too soft to win a big game. Atlanta should feel fortunate to have played a soft schedule to this point.
The team certainly doesn’t share this sentiment.
Head coach Mike Smith called his players resilient during his Monday afternoon press conference, when asked about Atlanta’s ability to win while not playing its best game. Of his team's effort in Sunday's 23-19 win over Arizona, Smith said:
This is a group of guys that regardless of what happened on the previous play, we put that one behind us and move on to the next one and you just have to keep fighting. I don’t think there was ever a doubt in anyone’s mind that we weren’t going to get the outcome that we wanted. We just kept working at it.
At some point, though, the Falcons have to start imposing their will on teams instead of reacting to the situations dictated by their opponents.
Arizona brought a unique pass rush and forced quarterback Matt Ryan into five interceptions. The Falcons were forced to come from behind to win.
Four of Atlanta’s remaining six games are against teams that have winning records, lead their division or have beaten the Falcons already this season. This stretch will show whether the Falcons have the mettle to overpower teams and make a playoff run.
Starting weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has missed the last three games with an ankle injury and the defense has missed him.
Weatherspoon is the heart and soul of this defense that has slowly fallen in the run defense rankings since he’s been out.
Smith said after the game Sunday that he wasn’t sure if Weatherspoon would be able to return by Atlanta’s Week 12 game in Tampa and reiterated that statement Monday when he said he hoped Weatherspoon would be back sooner rather than later.
Which injured Atlanta starter is most needed Sunday in Tampa?
Cornerback Asante Samuel missed 42 defensive snaps (72 percent) on Sunday, according to Football Outsiders. He came out of the game after a tackle with an arm injury, re-entered later and was hurt again. He’s been getting treatment this week, according to Smith, but his status for Week 12 won’t be known until later in the week.
Wide receiver Julio Jones played just 48 percent of Atlanta’s offensive snaps Sunday because of an ankle injury that was present prior to the game and re-injured in the third quarter.
Smith didn’t comment on Jones’ availability or status, but did have positive things to say about the injury situation as a whole.
I think the injury situation is going to be better than it was last week. We had some guys that were banged up. We have some guys that we are anticipating that did not play in the ballgame last week that were scratched because of injuries will be back participating with us this week. It’ll be good to get some of those guys back.
Akeem Dent was thrown into the fire after middle linebacker Curtis Lofton bolted for the New Orleans Saints in the offseason.
After a lackluster start to his second season in the NFL, Dent has slowly started earning more playing time and more respect from his coaching staff. Said Smith:
He’s [Dent] a guy that I think has gotten better and better each week. The snaps that he’s had to take because of Spoon being out have been invaluable for us down the road. He’s going to be a guy that’s going to be a very good football player for us for a long, long time.
Matt Ryan was having an MVP-type season until a five-interception debacle derailed that plan.
Prior to Week 11, Ryan had thrown 20 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and had amassed 2,771 passing yards. He notched 301 yards through the air against Arizona, but couldn’t connect in the end zone and watched three passes get batted into the air and picked off.
Week 11 was an off game for Ryan, who’s showing many signs of growth and maturity in 2012 under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Ryan will undoubtedly bounce back and continue to put up fabulous numbers.
His MVP run, however, has come to a screeching halt.
It’s safe to say that the Falcons need what’s known in college sports as a signature win. The best thing that could happen over the next week, maybe two, is for Atlanta to go out and put a good old-fashioned wood-shed whipping on either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the New Orleans Saints.
In the NFL, Atlanta has the benefit of not having to worry about computer rankings or an RPI indicator. The Falcons’ 9-1 record is what puts this team on top of the league, but it’s not a sign of power. And that’s an issue for Atlanta.
The Falcons need to put on a display of power.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.