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Falcons Show They're the NFC's Best, but Can They Be Trusted to Keep Their Edge?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2017

Atlanta's Adrian Clayborn delivers a blow to Aaron Rodgers, whose evening included an interception and a lost fumble.
Atlanta's Adrian Clayborn delivers a blow to Aaron Rodgers, whose evening included an interception and a lost fumble.Associated Press

It was early in the third quarter and Vic Beasley hit Aaron Rodgers in the chest so hard that the ball popped loose, and somehow Rodgers wasn't shattered into small pieces.

The hit was nasty, fast and athletic. Even as the ball skipped along the turf and the play continued live, Beasley got up to celebrate. The Falcons recovered, scored and it was 31-7 Atlanta.

Last season, the Falcons had moments when their defense was formidable. It was for a half against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. (Cough—28-3—cough.)

But what we saw against the Packers was a different level for this Falcons team. It's true Green Bay was missing two starters on the offensive line, and star receiver Jordy Nelson got hurt early. But it was still Rodgers they destroyed. It was still the Packers offense they manhandled.

In a new stadium with the cheapest food in professional sports, the Falcons made one of the best quarterbacks in history look like one of their $2 hot dogs.

Last year, in the title game against Green Bay, the Falcons also blew out Green Bay. This was still different. In that game, Rodgers finished with three touchdowns and an interception. In this game, toward the end of the third quarter, Rodgers had only 168 yards passing, no touchdowns, one interception, a fumble and a 64.3 passer rating. That is Mike Glennon-y.

Brooks Reed joins in as Rodgers goes down.
Brooks Reed joins in as Rodgers goes down.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
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Rodgers made things interesting later, but it was too late. Atlanta's defense had done the job.

There's something different about this Falcons defense. You waited for the Falcons to choke it away. They didn't. You wondered if there would be some type of hangover that would creep in. It never came. There was the usual offensive explosion from the Falcons, but the defense was the difference-maker.

It's faster. It's better. It's stronger. It's fiercer. It's a big reason why the Falcons beat the Packers, 34-23, on Sunday night, and why the Falcons might be an even bigger threat this season than last year. 

Now comes the biggest question of all: Can the Atlanta defense maintain this level of play? Or is Atlanta, despite this better defense, still a choke waiting to happen?

What we do know for certain is that the Falcons are the best team in the conference. For the moment, it's not even close.

Look around the NFC. The Panthers are 2-0, but Cam Newton is still not physically right and injured his ankle on Sunday. Don't totally trust the Buccaneers (yet). Same with the Lions (yet). The Seahawks are having problems on offense. No one in the NFC East is on the same level as Atlanta (yet).

The AFC is far deeper and more competitive. In the NFC, it's the Falcons' world.

They are of course still slightly 28-3ish. These are the Falcons, authors of the greatest choke in Super Bowl history. As good as their defense is, it began to relent, slightly, to Rodgers in the fourth quarter as he started moving the football. You could almost hear the Falcons fans triggered as Rodgers marched late.

The question, again, is can the Falcons be trusted?

It will be the constant question lurking in the back of everyone's minds when it comes to Atlanta. No matter how many points they score or wins they get, and no matter that they are best in the NFC right now, the Falcons will draw doubts.

Clayborn (left) and Jack Crawford celebrate a sack.
Clayborn (left) and Jack Crawford celebrate a sack.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

They will be doubted if they start 5-0. Or 8-0. Or if they start 16-0. They will be doubted if they make it back to a Super Bowl and lead 30-0 at the half. This is the burden of losing the Super Bowl the way they did.

What will help them along the way is that defense. It held late when it needed to, and in a slightly circular moment, the Falcons near the end of the game blasted Rodgers again.

This time it was 280-pound defensive end Adrian Clayborn who smacked Rodgers hard in the chest. It was another brutal hit from the Falcons.

Rodgers got up. Not sure how, but he got up.

The Falcons offense will generate the headlines, but it's the defense that makes Atlanta even scarier. It's nastier than last year's.

But we can still ask the question: Can the Falcons be trusted?

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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