Or that's how it seemed, at least, with the Falcons doing more each week to cast aside whatever doubts remain about them, highlighted by Sunday's 23-16 win over the Broncos.
The Falcons had scored 45-plus points in two straight games heading into Week 5, which included pummeling the Carolina Panthers in Week 4. That's when wide receiver Julio Jones became one of just six players ever to eclipse 300 receiving yards in a single game.
Some may have reacted with a quiet indifference after that trouncing. Those naysayers could have noted the Panthers defense without cornerback Josh Norman isn't the same unit from 2015, the one that ranked sixth in yards allowed per game. And throttling the injury-riddled New Orleans Saints defense—as the Falcons did in Week 3 while winning 45-32—usually requires an offense to only show up and breathe.
But certain wins can have a silencing effect and cement a team's position in the league's hierarchy.
The Falcons' triumph over the Broncos was one of those wins.
Focus less on the final score that makes the outcome seem closer than it was. Instead, turn your eye toward the dismantling of a premier defense carried out by one of the only offenses capable of such a thrashing.
After their first four games, the Broncos were at or near the top of most defensive categories in the NFL. You know, the surface-level numbers usually cited when trying to gauge how terrifying a defense has become. They were allowing 4.3 yards per play (first), 16 points per game (fifth) and 283.3 yards per game (fourth).
When those common measuring-stick digits are compared directly to the carnage from Sunday, all we can see is smoke rising from the rubble left behind.
|Broncos defense over first four games vs. Week 5|
|Game(s)||Yds allowed/play||Points/game||Totals yards allowed|
|First four games||4.3||16||283.2|
|Week 5 vs. Falcons||6.0||23||372|
The Falcons averaged 1.7 yards per play more than what the Broncos had given up over the first quarter of the 2016 season. Absorb that for a moment, along with the Falcons hanging 23 points on a juggernaut Denver defense that had yet to give up more than 20.
Once your system has recovered from seeing the kings of crunch punched in the mouth, let's move on to the truly glowing development from Sunday: the section of the box score that shows only the shattered remains of a normally suffocating defense.
The Broncos came into Week 5 allowing an average of 26.2 receiving yards per game to running backs, according to Football Outsiders. That per-week average reflected a hard-hitting element from Denver we had come to know well and expect.
Creating separation and getting open is hard enough against its secondary. Gaining extra yards after the catch means climbing the tallest mountain of hurt, which is why running backs have been reduced to a minimal role against the Broncos in the passing game.
Unless those running backs are named Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman—especially the latter, who racked up 132 receiving yards on just four catches.
Coleman didn't get to that gargantuan receiving total through sheer volume. No, his mammoth day for the Falcons as a pass-catcher came the hard way and through massive chunk gains.
Coleman finished with receptions for 49, 48 and 31 yards, the last of which resulted in a touchdown. Incredibly, after only five games,he has now recorded three catches for 40-plus yards.
Although Coleman's effectiveness as a pass-catcher isn't entirely unexpected, he's smashing his past single-year highs. He was injured and limited as an NFL rookie, so look past his 14 receiving yards from last year. But in college at Indiana, he posted single-season totals of only 193 receiving yards (2013) and 141 yards (2014).
Through five games in 2016, he's up to 313 receiving yards, which also includes his 95 yards in Week 1. How that skill set fits alongside Freeman is starting to matter less and less each week, because which name sits atop the Falcons' running back depth chart is becoming irrelevant.
The two are rapidly emerging as the NFL's best and most feared running back tandem. As Coleman was busy creating mismatches with what he does after the catch, Freeman painted Broncos defenders black and blue with his punishing downhill running. He finished with 88 rushing yards and a touchdown and added 35 receiving yards of his own. That came with his 207 total yards in Week 3 still not far in the rearview mirror.
Two running backs combined for 286 yards from scrimmage against the Broncos. Or as Mike Conti of Sports Radio 92.9 The Game put it, Freeman and Coleman were pretty much the Falcons offense:
But the Falcons being able to produce offensive fireworks isn't surprising. Jones has long been a generational talent capable of embarrassing cornerbacks weekly, although he was quiet in Week 5 (only two catches for 29 yards). And it wasn't hard to imagine Coleman and Freeman carving up defenses if they could both stay healthy.
What's new is something unexpected—and perhaps the final piece to push the now 4-1 Falcons toward a definitive leap forward.
They have a defense that generates respect instead of laughter.
Specifically, the Falcons pass rush has dug free from its deep basement residency. In 2015, Atlanta finished with a league-worst 19 sacks. They recorded six sacks in Sunday's game alone, and the most promising sign is the source of those quarterback takedowns.
Over half of the sacks (3.5, to be exact) came from outside linebacker Vic Beasley.
Beasley, who Atlanta selected eighth overall in 2015, looked to be spiraling spiraling toward draft-bust status after finishing his rookie season with only four sacks. He's already passed that mark in just five games this year.
Even with all of those pieces in place—a human trampoline at wide receiver, a dynamic running back tandem and a steadily improving pass rush—the doubts will still linger around the Falcons.
The shadow cast by the 2015 season stretches over several area codes in Atlanta. That's when the Falcons were soaring high after winning their first five games before fizzling out with an 8-8 record and missing the playoffs for a third straight year.
"I recognize the question, and the answer is it's a different outfit," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn told reporters after the game when asked about the possibility of a talented team stumbling again. "I recognize where you're going with it, but it is a different group. We are a mentally tougher group than we were. And we have real ability to understand how we have to reset to get ready to go right back to that process."
There will be many more hurdles to clear in the effort to bury those memories in the past. One comes immediately in Week 6 when the Falcons travel west to play the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, a place where road wins go to die.
But Denver is a similar graveyard for visiting victories, and the Falcons took a happy flight home from there. More of the same in Seattle will further solidify them as a certified NFC contender.