The 2017 Atlanta Falcons have been trying all year to look, feel and play like the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. And in a related search, running back Devonta Freeman has been trying to look, feel and play like the 2016 Devonta Freeman.
He did one better Monday night, as Freeman also sounded like the 2016 version of himself throughout the Falcons' 24-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When he's at his best, Freeman creates his own genre of football music at the end of his runs. The sound of clashing pads and facemasks punctuates almost every carry. It's a painful symphony filled with regret coming from the defenders who have to stop him.
They weren't successful too often Monday as Freeman reverted to the pint-sized punisher we knew well during the Falcons' 2016 Super Bowl run. He ran with violence and a complete disregard for the usual limitations of a 5'8" running back.
He ran with bitter determination, too, dragging the Falcons to a crucial win during the chase for a playoff spot, a win that still made knuckles turn far too many shades of white.
Most of all, he ran with speed and, for one night at least, restored the rushing power that makes the Falcons offense a multi-dimensional nightmare for any opponent.
Stopping body-crunching runs like the 22-yard gain below doesn't seem like a pleasant experience any time of the year. The fun meter on defending Freeman takes a real plunge in January, when the weather can be less than ideal:
That was one of four touches when Freeman gained 15-plus yards against the Buccaneers. Note where he first faced contact, and where the run ended. Those two spots are 10 yards apart because Freeman put a fresh coat of black and blue on Bucs safety T.J. Ward.
Freeman also leveled Chris Conte, the Bucs' other starting safety, several times on his way to 194 yards from scrimmage. He single-handedly accounted for nearly half of the 410 yards gained by the Atlanta offense.
The Falcons are a high-octane offense when they can run the ball, particularly on stretch plays. Quarterback Matt Ryan was explosive too in 2016 during an MVP season. But that happened because everything—the top-tier offensive line that dominated at the point of attack, the unique speed-strength blend provided by Freeman and Ryan's downfield accuracy—worked together in perfect cohesion.
Or if one area failed, another kept chugging along just fine. That's how the Falcons beat Tampa during a game when Ryan missed on a handful of deep passes as his offense pushed for a more comfortable lead. The four-time Pro Bowler completed only 54.8 percent of his pass attempts and averaged a pedestrian 6.8 yards per throw.
But it was fine because Freeman has a way of erasing mistakes when he's throwing his knockout punches. Or in this case, busting ankles on his way to a 32-yard touchdown that would prove to be the decisive points.
The 25-year-old has had a sluggish and inconsistent season, much like the entire Falcons offense. He came into Week 15 averaging 74.9 yards from scrimmage per game, down from 96.3 in 2016.
He blew past his season average by halftime Monday. Freeman entered the locker room with 103 yards from scrimmage.
As NFL Research noted, the Freeman we were watching looked familiar, just not in 2017:
Freeman ended up leading the Falcons in both rushing and receiving yards, with 126 yards on the ground and 68 yards through the air. He averaged 7.2 yards per touch while reintroducing a core offensive element that had been sorely missed.
Atlanta needs to keep riding Freeman and not let him fade away again as the march toward the playoffs continues.
The Falcons have now won five of their last six games. At 9-5, they're within one game of the NFC South division-leading New Orleans Saints and are also one game ahead of the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks while holding the conference's second wild-card spot.
It's still possible to win the division because the Falcons play both the Saints and Carolina Panthers to end the season. They beat the Saints earlier in the year but lost to the Panthers.
Just a few weeks ago, the Falcons had lost three straight games to end the first half of their season with a 4-4 record. Now, since Week 10, they're averaging 24.7 points per game, and Freeman's resurgence is the latest piece to fall into place.
Suddenly the Falcons offense is dynamic again, and shades of 2016 are poking through.