Saturday, January 31, 2009

The NFL Blog: Super Bowl Betting Lines

Last Week: Vs. Spread (0-2); Straight Up (1-1)
Season: Vs. Spread (127-128-11); Straight Up (166-97-1)

Conference Championships Review: Damn. Just when it looked like I might finish the year over .500 ATS the spread I went 0-2 in the championship round for the first time ever. And I’m only 5-5 straight up in the playoffs.

Super Bowl Preview: I don’t really like this spread. I’m terrified that the Cardinals are going to win this game because if they do I’m not sure I can take the sport of pro football serious any longer.

Sunday’s Game

Pittsburgh (-6.5) vs. Arizona
Pick: Steelers win but Cards beat the spread.
Comment: Go Steelers! Sorry but I’m just not doing a preview on the worst Super Bowl matchup of the last 10 years. Arizona sucks!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Bulldawg Blog: Week 14 Review

The Loss to Tech

I haven’t done a Bulldawg Blog since week 12. In the case of this blog, it wasn’t the fact that I haven’t had much time recently that kept me from updating. Even if I had been trapped in a room with only my computer and a TV I wouldn’t have done a blog about the Dawgs during December. It’s taken a while but I’m finally ready to look at the Georgia Tech loss. The Georgia Tech game is the biggest of the year for me each season, no matter what. It’s the biggest sporting event of the year in my mind. I guess it’s the biggest event of the year in my life to be quite honest about it. I know not every Georgia fan looks at the Tech rivalry the same way I do and I have to admit that I have no understanding for those folks. Tech is Georgia’s biggest rival and they always will be. The Tech game is always the most important, because regardless of anything else the Dawgs do, they must beat Tech. That is priority number 1 every season.

This was more than just a loss to a rival for me. This defeat caused me to look at the season, the players, the program, the rivalry, and my own sense of worth as a human being differently. I had been looking at this season in a much more positive way than most Georgia fans. I had said that if the Dawgs beat GT and finished the regular season 10-2 it would have been a great season. If they went on and won a bowl game after that it would be a tremendous season. In my mind, the Tech loss drastically changed the way you have to look at this season. Yes, we won 10 games and went 6-2 in the SEC. We had a good year but not one that I can call “satisfactory” because we must beat Tech for the season to be “satisfactory.” If you don’t achieve the #1 priority of the season then it can’t be a successful season. It was a good season, and yet it was a failure as well. The Tech loss made me question the status and stature of the entire program. It made me start worrying a lot more about the future. And if you didn’t think less of yourself when that game was over then you are not a Georgia fan. If that game didn’t make you want to throw up all over the floor and not clean it up for a while then you aren’t really a Georgia fan. If that loss hasn’t crept into your mind and filled you with sadness for at least a moment every day since November 29th then you are not a Georgia fan.

Anyway, I’m ready to deal with this nightmare. You know, it was actually a great game if you were just a neutral fan. And there were moments when the Dawgs actually played well. There were a number of great individual performances for Georgia and that sucks because in the end the loss rendered all of those things meaningless. But it was a wild game that had dozens of significant moments and swings so we should go back and review it before moving on to discussion.

Week 14: vs. #22 Georgia Tech, Loss, 42-45.

Going In: The Dawgs had been off the previous week, while Tech had played on Thursday night and spanked Miami, 41-23, at home. Georgia was the #11 team in the BCS and was favored by 7.5 at home over the #22 ranked Jackets. Georgia had won 7 straight in the series and Mark Richt had never lost to Tech. This would obviously be Paul Johnson’s introduction to the rivalry. Tech fans were also paying attention to the UVA-Virginia Tech game because if UVA won then Tech would represent the ACC Costal Division in the ACC Championship Game.

1st Quarter

First Georgia Possession: Everything started out great for the Dawgs in the game. The Dawgs got the ball first and Richard Samuel—who mostly struggled this season—got a nice return on the opening kick, taking it from the 1 out to the 34. The Dawgs then marched right down the field and scored a TD to draw first blood. The Dawgs marched 66 yards in just 8 plays over 3:20 to send a message. On 3rd and goal from the 1, Matt Stafford threw to senior TE Tripp Chandler in the back of the end zone for the score, fitting the ball into an impossibly tight spot to put the Dawgs on the board first, up 7-0 with 11:40 left in the opening quarter. This was an awesome way to start the game and send Tech a message. But the Dawgs had looked great on their first possession of the game more often than not this year and it didn’t always mean continued offensive success. But the Dawgs had been able to cash in on their red zone chance, getting it done down close to the goal line on 3rd down, and for now everything was looking good.

First Tech Possession: Throughout the 2008 season kicking off was a major problem area for the Dawgs, primarily due to Blair Walsh’s inability to kick the ball deep and in bounds on a regular basis. Once again he would do a woeful job kicking off in the Tech game and his poor kicks would be a catalyst to Tech offensive success all day long. After the Dawgs scored on their first possession, Walsh immediately gave Tech’s offense a head start on answering that drive, kicking the ball out of bounds to give them the ball at their 40. Tech crossed up the Dawgs with a pass on the first play for a gain of 19 but then the defense settled in. The Dawgs had had an extra week to prepare for this option offense and they did a good job containing it early on. On 3rd and 3 at the Georgia 34, Jonathan Dwyer got the handoff and the Dawgs stopped him after a 1 yard gain. Johnson decided to go for it on 4th and 2 from the 33. Strangely, he had Josh Nesbitt drop back and pass and he threw incomplete. It was the balsy type of call that I knew Johnson was prone to make and really they had something on the play but Nesbitt isn’t that accurate of passer. He missed with the throw and Tech was forced to turn the ball back over to Georgia at the 33 with 9:00 left in the 1st and the Dawgs still up 7-0.

Second Georgia Possession: I was liking this. They got nothing out of a drive inside our 35 and now we had decent field position and a chance to go up 2 scores on them early. I thought if we could get a double digit lead it would really put Tech in a bad spot because they might have to throw more, and though they had had some success throwing the ball this year, you want Josh Nesbitt throwing the ball against you, not running the option. On the first play of the Dawgs’ 2nd possession Stafford hit Kenneth Harris for 31 yards and a 1st down at the Tech 36. It didn’t look like the Tech defense had an answer for our offense. Then Knowshown Moreno was stopped after a gain of 2 and a false start penalty turned a 2nd and 8 into a 2nd and 13. After an incomplete pass, the Dawgs were facing a 3rd and 13 from the 39. I guess they knew they were going to go for it on 4th down and had 2 plays to get 13 yards because they ran the ball with Knowshon on the next play. He almost broke it for a long run but ended up gaining 6 to make it 4th and 7 from the 33. Maybe it was a pass play originally and Stafford changed it. This is where a stud kicker would come in handy. You couldn’t punt from here but it wasn’t all that likely that you were going to pick up 7 yards. A 50 yard FG is long for the college game but the Dawgs wouldn’t have been scared to send out a trusted kicker in this situation. It’s 50 yards, not 55 yards or 58 yards. It’s makeable for a solid kicker but not a kicker like Blair Walsh obviously. If you could make a kick from here then running the ball on 3rd and 13 makes more sense. It was too close to punt and any FG over 40 was going to be sketchy, so maybe the Dawgs figured they could use 2 plays to get 13 yards, but unless Knowshown had picked up 10 or so on the run it was going to leave a pretty tough 4th down. The Dawgs had to try and go for it on 4th and 7. Tech knew it was a pass and the OL couldn’t allow Stafford any time at all and he was sacked back at the 40 for a 7 yard loss. The offensive line—with a false start and the sack allowed on 4th down—had let the team down again and the Dawgs had missed a chance to take a 2 score lead.

Second Tech Possession: So Tech got it back at their 40 still down just 7-0 with 6 and a half to play in the opening quarter. Jones ran for 11 yards and a 1st down inside Georgia territory, but on 2nd and 7 from the 43 the defense stopped Nesbit for a loss of 2 to bring up 3rd and 9. Tech tried to throw again and it was incomplete to make it 4th and 9 from the Georgia 45. Johnson decided to punt it this time and Tech’s punter pinned the Dawgs at their own 15.

Third Georgia Possession: So after starting their first two drives at their own 34 and their own 33, the Dawgs began their 3rd possession at their own 15, still leading 7-0 with about 4 minutes left in the 1st. On the 1st play of the drive Moreno got blown up in the backfield for a loss of 3 yards. Backed up by his own end zone and facing pressure, Stafford threw incomplete for Green on 2nd down to bring up 3rd and 13. On 3rd and very long, Stafford dropped back and had some time and fired over the middle but his pass was intercepted by Tech safety Morgan Burnett. Burnett was able to take it back 35 yards for a touchdown, assumingly to tie the game. I watched the game on TV and I was watching in slow motion as this particular play occurred. When Stafford first threw it I was encouraged because he had gotten the throw away cleanly and it looked like he threw a great pass. But then I kept waiting for the receiver he was going for to come into the picture and they never did. A bunch of players came into view but they were all wearing white shirts and I thought “That is not good.” When I saw Burnett intercept I thought it could be real trouble because there was no one around to tackle him. As the play unfolded my heart sank. Obviously I wasn’t going to be happy with them scoring an INT for a TD but it was also a bad play by Stafford and I was hoping he would have a really good game. And to let them have a defensive TD hurt because you didn’t want to give them any help. And I knew it was the type of play that could ignite Tech because it could help them play loose and confident. Most of all, this play crushed me because I was hoping we would just rout them. I was hoping it wouldn’t be close so I wouldn’t be hard on the nerves, so to speak. And I wanted to shut Tech up. Also, this was our last chance to play a great game and I thought a complete ass-kicking of Tech could be our “signature moment” of the season, if you will. Well, this play put a dent in those things. As I had feared, this would not be easy; it was going to be a battle.

Before we get to the actual throw, let’s consider the play call for a moment. It was 3rd and 13; the exact down and distance that had come up on the previous drive. On the last drive when we had the ball at the Tech 39 a running play was called (or Stafford checked down to it). At that point it was too close to punt and a FG wasn’t really an option so moving it a few yards closer wouldn’t matter. And it was such a long distance to the 1st down that a run was going to have to pick up 10 yards or more just to make it 4th and short. Throwing for the 1st down in that situation isn’t that risky because if the ball is intercepted then the other team still probably won’t have great field position. So you’d think if there was a time to sort of “let Stafford do it with his arm” then that was probably it. But they ran it. So now it’s 3rd and 13 again, only this time the ball is at the UGA 12 yard line. To run the ball here might get some boos from the crowd but it’s not a bad play. There’s very little chance of picking up the 1st down but because the defense is expecting pass and protecting against it you are probably going to get a decent gain. That will give the punter some more room and it’s a safe play. And remember, this wasn’t a time when you were that scared of punting the ball. You have the lead and so far the defense has played well. Tech had started with good field position on both of their drives so far and had managed just 1 first down each time. If you run it then you will probably have to give the ball up but it is a safe play. If you throw the ball you obviously have a better chance of picking up the 1st down and one of the benefits of having a QB like Stafford is that he is capable of making a play even against a defense geared to stop a long pass. But throwing it is a much riskier option. You’re asking the injury-depleted, inexperienced offensive line to protect in an obvious passing situation against a very talented defensive line. You are deep in your own territory so a turn over here is more costly and a sack will only back the punter up further. Finally, while Stafford has the ability to make a great throw here and steal the 1st down, you also know that he gets into trouble at times by trusting his own ability too much, making questionable decisions, making risky throws, or forcing something when nothing is there and it isn’t worth the risk. I try hard not to be too critical about play calling and coaching and strategy because I realize that I just don’t know that much. But I honestly don’t think it’s out of line to wonder why you would run the ball when it’s 3rd and 13 from the other team’s 39 on one drive, and then on the next drive throw the ball on 3rd and 13 from your own 12. Essentially, you played safe when it would have been prudent to take a risk, and then you took a risk when it would have been prudent to play safe.

As for the throw itself, it was awful. The decision was bad if only because he threw the ball where there were a lot of defenders and no receivers. The ball did seem to sail on him but it was more than just a bad overthrow because there was nothing there to begin with. Since there was no one around the throw except for defenders it meant that all Burnett really had to do was make the catch and then run and he was going to score. The offense had no shot to bring him down. The play gave all the momentum to Tech and gave them a score without having to do anything on offense.

When Burnett scored you assumed the game was tied because you never think about anyone missing the extra point. But Tech couldn’t get the snap down on the try and tried to run for the end zone and didn’t make it. So the score stayed 7-6 and for the moment we were still ahead. This actually picked my spirits up and I hoped we could use it to our advantage.

Fourth Georgia Possession: The Dawgs got the ball right back of course and Samuel returned the ball to the 25 where the drive started with now less than 3 minutes remaining in the quarter. The offense went back to the run and it paid off. After getting stopped for nothing on 1st down, Moreno ran for 8 on the next play. Then on 3rd and 2 Moreno caught a pass for a gain of 16 to pick up the 1st. Give the Dawgs credit for a nice call on that 3rd down. A completion to Green moved the ball inside Tech territory but then came another false start. An 11 yard run by Moreno on 1st and 15 moved the ball to the 33 and the 1st quarter ended with the score 7-6 Dawgs.

2nd Quarter

Fourth Georgia Possession (Continued): The Dawgs had been moving the ball when the 1st quarter ended and they started the 2nd quarter with Mikey Moore catching a 20 yard pass on 2nd and 4 to get a 1st down at the Tech 13. 2 plays later on 2nd and 7 from the 10, Stafford hit Massa with a pass for a touchdown to cap an 8 play, 75 yard drive that took 4:21. The extra point made it 14-6 and I felt much better. We needed to answer that pick 6 and the Dawgs were actually up by 1 point more now than they had been before Burnett’s play. At least that’s how I was trying to look at it.

Third Tech Possession: After kicking the ball out of bounds to start the game, Blair Walsh was able to keep the ball in the field of play on his second kickoff, but it didn’t matter that much because his other problem cropped up. He kicked it short. The ball only traveled to the 9 and Tech returned it out to the 35, just 5 yards short of where they would have been if he had kicked out of bounds. The Dawgs defense had stopped Tech after allowing just 1 first down on each of Tech’s possessions so far but Tech finally started to get rolling offensively on their first drive of the 2nd quarter. Without much trouble, Tech went down the field and scored, marching 65 yards on 8 plays over 4:14. The big play was a 36 yard run by Jones on 2nd and 8 that gave them a 1st down at the Dawgs 27. A few plays later on 2nd and goal from the 2, Lucas Cox ran it in for a TD to make it 14-12. Tech decided to go for the 2-pt conversion right away which I had hoped they would. Although I would think that Tech’s offense would be especially tough to keep from picking up 3 yards, I was hoping they would go for it because I knew if we stopped them we would could make it a 2 score game again with a TD. It’s usually best to wait for a while to see whether you need to go for 2 because if you don’t get it you only compound the problem. They did go for it and Nesbit ran it and didn’t make it. The score stayed 14-12 and now that bad snap had cost them 2 points. Again, the failed extra point lifted my spirits. But it was now obvious that we weren’t going to just shut Tech’s offense down and it probably was going to be a tough battle throughout.

Fifth Georgia Possession: After their first 2 kickoffs went to the 1 yard line and the 2 yard line Tech’s 3rd kickoff only went to the 12. But Samuel only returned it 12 yards so the Dawgs’ drive began at their own 24 with less than 10 minutes to play in the half. This drive was all Mohamed Massaquoi. After catching a 23 yard pass for a 1st down near midfield, Massa got the ball on an end around handoff and then threw the ball for AJ Green but it was incomplete. While these plays can be disastrous, I like the call because it shakes things up and keeps the defense on its heels, and that can take some of their aggression away. 2 plays later the Dawgs were facing a 3rd and 6 from just inside Tech territory when Stafford hit Massa with a pass and he took it all the way for a TD. The 49 yard TD capped a 5 play, 76 yard drive that took just 2:22. The extra point made it 21-12 and now the Dawgs did indeed have that 2 score lead I had been thinking about.

Fourth Tech Possession: Walsh’s 3rd kickoff was even shorter than his last one, traveling only to the 11, but luckily the coverage team made a good play and stopped the return at the 23. With less than 7 minutes remaining in the quarter, if the Dawgs could hold Tech here they would have a good chance of going to halftime with a 2 score advantage. Tech had scored on their last drive but the Bulldawg defense responded by getting their first 3 and out of the game on the very next drive. On 3rd and 2 from the 31, the defense swallowed Nesbit up for no gain to bring up 4th down. With Tech facing a punting situation the Dawgs called their first timeout with 5:03 on the clock. Tech punted the ball out of bounds at the Georgia 36 and the momentum was swinging more and more towards the Dawgs.

Sixth Georgia Possession: The Dawgs were in great position to take control of the game as the offense came back on the field with 4:54 left before halftime. But the drive got untracked right away by a holding penalty. After picking up 11 yards on 1st and 20, the drive took another major hit when the Dawgs were on the wrong end of a highly questionable call. On 2nd and 9 from the 37, Stafford dropped back and the blocking fell apart immediately. Stafford knew right away that he just needed to throw the ball away, which he did, chucking it out of bounds. When it first happened I was actually thinking “good job, Matty” because it showed he was thinking about being smart, not taking a sack, and not trying to make something happen and risking a mistake when he didn’t need to. Then the officials threw a flag and ruled it intentional grounding. The Dawgs were very upset and the crowd was incensed. The reason everyone was upset was because Stafford had thrown the ball out of bounds which is normally safe from intentional grounding. More importantly, no Tech player had been within 4 or 5 yards of him when he threw it. Here was a case where the officials were making a judgment call based on perceived “intent.” I could see where the refs were coming from: Stafford had thrown the ball where no player could get it when he was still between the tackles and he did so because he did not want to be sacked. But two questions immediately came to mind. First, was Stafford being punished for the strength of his arm? The fact that he was able to so casually throw the ball well out of bounds seemed to hurt him because you couldn’t claim that a receiver had been anywhere near the ball. More importantly, did the officials allow Stafford’s demeanor to affect their decision? Stafford had just thrown the ball away right away and it was obvious that he did so without any intention of someone catching it. It seemed like if he had thrown the ball into the dirt or done more of an acting job the flag wouldn’t have been thrown. It was just strange to see that call made when the ball was thrown out of bounds and there was no defender near him. So that call pretty much killed any chances the Dawgs had on the drive. Instead of 3rd and 9 from the 37 it was 3rd and 19 from the 27. But the Dawgs tried to pass for the 1st down anyway. It was incomplete and Brian Mimbs came out to punt. Mimbs got off a solid punt to the Tech 31 and the coverage team stopped the return at the 34. A 10 yard penalty on the return pushed it back to the 24. So all in all the Dawgs had come out of it pretty well because there wasn’t much time left in the half.

Fifth Tech Possession: The Dawgs looked in good position to take the 9 point lead into halftime because there was only 3:07 left on the clock when Tech took over at their own 24. Tech’s offense didn’t seem one that would be adept at scoring quickly at the end of the half or the game because they just didn’t throw the ball that much. They hurt themselves again on the 2nd play of the drive with a holding penalty that backed them up inside the 20 and made it 2nd and 16. On 3rd and 7 from the 27, the Dawgs defense stopped Nesbit after a gain of just 1 yard to hold Tech to 3 and out for a 2nd straight possession. The Dawgs called their 2nd timeout with 1:32 remaining in the half. Tech punted the ball out of bounds again but this time it went just 28 yards and Georgia took over at their own 44.

Seventh Georgia Possession: The Dawgs had a chance to make it a double digit lead going into halftime if they could get some points here. I thought if the Dawgs could do something here in the final 90 seconds of the half and make it a double digit lead it would be huge but it didn’t look good after Stafford threw incomplete on the first 2 plays. But then the Dawgs picked up the 1st with a 15 yard pass to Massa. A 12 yard completion to Green got us close to field goal range and then Shaun Chapas came threw with one of the best plays of his career, taking a pass and rumbling 26 yards for a 1st and goal at the 3. Everything was looking good for the Dawgs. I thought if they could punch it in here it would be really tough for Tech to come back. On the next play, Stafford threw a 3 yard strike to Massa, hooking up with the senior for the 3rd time in the game, to cap a 6 play, 56 yard drive. The extra point made it 28-12 and the Dawgs were just 37 seconds away from taking a 16 point lead to the half.

Sixth Tech Possession: I’m normally a fan of the squib kick when you’re trying to guard against a long return very late in the 2nd or 4th quarter. Take away the chance of a return for a TD or deep in your territory and give them the ball at the 25 or the 30. But I’m not a fan of what Blair Walsh did on the kickoff late in the half which is kick the ball to the 28. That’s where you want to be trying to make the tackle, not where you want them to start the return. Tech returned it 12 yards and that gave them the ball at the 40 yard line. They could now risk trying to do something here late in the half because they were closer to midfield than their own end zone. This was not cool. Even if they got a FG here it would be big because they would get the ball first in the 2nd half. There was over half a minute on the clock and that’s plenty of time to move from the 40 into field goal range in college football. It also meant they had enough time to try a run, which they did on 1st down, picking up 8 yards and then calling their 1st timeout with 22 seconds left. They were now at the 48 and would need to make only one completion for 15 to 20 yards to be in position for a FG. But on 2nd and 2 Nesbit threw incomplete. On 3rd down and 2 Nesbitt went back and bought time and fired deep. My heart was in my throat for a moment because again they had something and if Nesbitt had made a great throw it could have been a TD but it fell incomplete. Tech called a timeout to come up with a play for 4th and 2 from their own 48 with only 7 seconds left. Presumably they told Nesbitt to make sure he left no time on the clock. He scrambled around and then chucked a Hail Mary pass. It was scary because he threw it almost all the way to the end zone which not every college QB can do. Rashad Jones made the pick at the 5, went down at the 8, and the half ended with the Dawgs leading 28-12. I exhaled once we escaped with the 16 point lead at half. Things were looking really good.


I was feeling really good at halftime. I had been so worried about this game for the last 2 weeks and when Stafford threw the INT for the touchdown I was pretty scared. But at halftime I was feeling relieved that things were still at least going to be business as usual against Tech and we would keep our hold on the state for at least one more year. We were going to survive this game and that would allow me to feel like we had still had a great year. I had been annoyed by some of the comments by Tech players and fans and some media people during the last few weeks. To me, Tech had just acted really cocky about things when they had nothing to be cocky about. I was just so glad we were beating their ass and I hoped it would get worse in the 2nd half. I realized that we had been fortunate to stop their offense as well as we had and that they had been really close on a number of plays but I still thought we had answered the question of whether our defense was “disciplined” enough to “handle” Tech’s option offense. I didn’t at all think the game was over. The rational part of my brain new well that there was still a whole half to play and it was only 28-12. But in my heart I had no doubt we were going to win. I think underneath I had never really allowed myself to consider that we might lose the game, even though the rational part of me was making me very nervous. But definitely at this point, underneath, I was not considering that we might actually lose the game.

3rd Quarter

Seventh Tech Possession: As the 2nd half got underway, I felt like if we got any more points at all and took a 3 score lead that the game was over. I didn’t think Tech would be able to get the 2-pt conversion twice in a row anyway and I wasn’t even sure if they would go for it because of the fear of getting only 6 points again. As we prepared to kickoff, I was thinking that the defense needed to beware of a pass and at least just make Tech work for yards and take some time. But I should have been worrying about the kickoff. Although I wasn’t at all surprised by it, I still couldn’t believe that Blair Walsh somehow managed to kick the ball out of bounds again on the 2nd half kickoff. Immediately this gave Tech a shot in the arm and put them a play or two away from scoring position without any time at all coming off the clock. On the first play of the 2nd half, Nesbitt ran the option right and pitched to Jonathan Dwyer who had done nothing in the 1st half. Dwyer took the pitch and it looked like the Dawgs would have him stopped after about 4 yards or so. But then there was no tackle. Dwyer didn’t really break any tackles; the defenders just didn’t make the tackle. I kept waiting for somebody to make a tackle but no one did and as he crossed midfield I realized that it was going to be a really big play and a few yards later I realized he was gone. The defense hadn’t even made Tech run 2 plays to score. They had allowed Tech to score a touchdown 12 seconds into the 2nd half.

It was one of the worst plays by a Georgia defense in the Mark Richt era. On the play, Tech did nothing different from what they had done all game but the defense apparently had lost their focus during halftime. It’s amazing that a team could allow that to happen but the players themselves admitted to it after the game. The Dawgs had struggled to put teams away and play complete games all year but I felt sure that they couldn’t possibly lose their intensity against Tech. They couldn’t suffer a let up, not in the Georgia Tech game. Yet after the game players talked about losing their edge and thinking they had the game wrapped up. Incredible. You worry about a team playing with too much emotion in a rivalry game. You expect that if a Bulldawg team is beating Tech badly that they will only want to make the beating even worse. But the defense didn’t come out playing like you would expect them to against Tech. They somehow lost their focus, intensity, energy, or whatever you call it that a team with heart, desire, pride, and a will to win has. It might not have mattered much against other teams but they were playing a team that knew it was a rivalry game and that wanted to win this game more than they did. They were playing a team that was hungrier and you could tell on that first play of the second half.

It’s true that Dwyer can sometimes be bottled up for a while and will then bust loose for a big gain all of the sudden, and Tech’s offense is that way. But this particular play shouldn’t have even gone for a 1st down and it should never have been a 60 yard touchdown. On the play, left DE Jarius Wynn held his ground and MLB Dannell Ellerbe stepped up in the middle and Nesbitt pitched the ball over to Dwyer at the 38 near the sideline. As Dwyer got to the 41, Reshad Jones was there right by the sideline to hit him and stop him for a short gain but Jones had come flying in and just sort of slid by Dwyer. It would be misleading to say that Dwyer faked him out or anything, Jones just sort of slipped and fell and never even put a hand on him. The OLB on that side of the field was Rennie Curran and he moved with the play to the left while being blocked by Tech’s right tackle. He was in position to make a play as Dwyer got to about the 44. At that same time, Ellerbe was coming over from the middle of the field and converge on Dwyer at the same time that Dwyer got to where Curran was. Had Curran been able to put a solid hit on Dwyer then Ellerbe would have just been there to help clean up the play after about a 4 yard gain. If Curran couldn’t hit him straight on then Ellerbe would be right there to make an easy tackle and stop him for a gain of 5 or so. Tech’s right tackle held his block on Curran and was still driving him from behind right as Dwyer reached him and so Curran ducked his head a bit and ended up not really hitting him at all. Again, this shouldn’t have been a big deal because Ellerbe would be right there, unblocked, to make a tackle. Ellerbe was right there, but instead of going in and hitting Dwyer and wrapping his arms around him, Ellerbe just ran into him with his forearms up. It was as if he went in for a kill shot like you might see a safety do against a receiver over the middle. There were several problems with the move. First, he was undoubtedly assuming that Curran was going to make the stick first and then he would come in and to finish him but Curran got blocked from behind just at the point of contact and couldn’t make the stick so Ellerbe needed to actually try and make a form tackle. Secondly, you don’t want to try that sort of thing anyway against a running back in an option attack because one missed tackle can lead to a big play. Lastly, he didn’t even hit Dwyer hard, he just kind of bumped him and Dwyer didn’t even bounce, he just kept right on going. This ranks as one of the worst plays of the season. Once Dwyer got by the safety and the linebackers it was going to be a big play. But Asher Allen was playing CB in coverage on that side and he was right there and could have used the side line as another defender and either made the tackle or at least made Dwyer go back inside where other defenders were. But Allen couldn’t fight off a block from a WR and Dwyer ran by him at the Georgia 40 with Asher still getting punked on the Tech sidelines. The OLB on the other side of the field on the play was John Knox. He couldn’t over pursue from the start in case the run was cut back but that wasn’t the problem. He just didn’t really do anything. He assumed that either the first guy would get him or the second guy would or the third guy or the fourth guy and by the time the fifth guy hadn’t gotten him and Knox started going full speed he had no shot at him. The last man who could have made the play was safety CJ Byrd. If Byrd had played it correctly he could have hit Dwyer at around the 30 and if he didn’t bring him down he could have at least slowed him up and made him cut back in where Knox could have brought him down at the 25 or so But Byrd took a terrible angle and never came close. Dwyer was gone.

After the score Tech lined up to go for 2. This was big. Dwyer got it again and went in easily. 12 seconds into the 2nd half Tech had gotten within a touch down. That 28-12 lead had seemed a lot bigger than it really was because of the extra points. If you added in the 2-pt conversions it was just a two score game and in just 12 seconds Tech had cut it in half and made it a 1 score game. The 2nd half could not have started worse.

Eighth Georgia Possession: I felt strongly that the Dawgs really needed to answer Tech’s big play with something. They at least needed to get some points to make it a 2 score game again. They had to keep the momentum from building. But it would continue to build on the kickoff. During the season Richard Samuel often reminded me of a track star who that has been convinced to give football a try. He just didn’t look to have any “football instincts.” He appeared lost again here, taking the ball at the 3 yard line and going down at the 11 after a return of just 8 yards. This was an awful return and a huge mistake. That return allowed the momentum to continue to build and put pressure on the offense. It also meant that they would have to be cautious in play calling. Now the Dawgs just needed a 1st down to slow the momentum and avoid kicking out of their end zone. But Moreno was stopped after 2 yards on 1st down and Stafford threw incomplete on the next 2 plays to bring up 4th and 8 from the 13. Not only would the Dawgs not answer with points, they would go 3 and out and they would be punting from their own end zone. Mimbs got off a good punt under the circumstances. The Tech return man backed up to his 35 and ran it back 9 yards before going down at the Tech 44. That was as good as you really could have hoped. Now the defense had to step up.

Eighth Tech Possession: The game had certainly changed a lot in the minute and a half of game time since the start of the 3rd quarter. Tech had scored on their first drive of the half but that had just been one play and I was hopeful the defense could go back to what they had done in the 1st half when they had fairly well stopped Tech’s option offense. But in 2 plays Tech had a 1st down in Georgia territory. In 2 more plays they had a 1st down and were very near field goal range. Finally the Dawgs held it to a 4 yard gain on 1st down and 4 yard gain on 2nd down to bring up the first 3rd down for Tech in the half. It was 3rd and 2 from the Dawgs 25. Nesbitt kept it and the Dawgs stopped him after a short gain to bring up 4th down. I hoped that Johnson would send out the FG team because I didn’t think we’d be able to stop them for a short gain two plays in a row. But Tech lined up to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Georgia 24. Nesbitt kept it and again the Dawgs stopped him for a minimal gain. It would all depend on the spot. It didn’t look like he had made it but when they brought out the chains and measured they had the first down by a few links of the chain. At the time, I felt like stopping them there might be the chance we needed to survive this. I still don’t think he got it but it’s hard to complain about the spot unless it’s clear cut. I was hoping Richt would challenge but he didn’t. Normally I wouldn’t be for challenging the spot and I doubt it would have made any difference but it might have been worth a try in this spot. If they spot him short on that play and we get the ball back I think we win the game. But he got it just barley and the drive continued. The defense stopped the run after only a yard on the next play, the first time on the drive that 1st down had gone for less than 4 yards. That would at least give them a shot to stop Tech from getting another 1st down here but on 2nd and 9 they surprised us with a pass and a pass interference call made it 1st and goal at the 8. On the next play Jones got the ball and scored easily. The defense wasn’t stopping Tech’s option like they had been. They went 56 yards in 10 plays, taking 5:16 off the clock, and suddenly all that was keeping Georgia ahead were those conversions. Now Tech lined up for 2 and if they got it the game would be tied. They made an excellent call on this conversion, as Nesbitt took the snap and dropped back like he might throw, and after making that one little move he just busted up the middle towards the end zone and no one could do more than reach for him. He made it easily and in just 6 minutes and 49 seconds Tech had scored 16 points and tied the game. Paul Johnson was going crazy on the sideline. I was extremely pissed off.

Ninth Georgia Possession: There was a long way to go and it was a brand new game. I was pissed because we had let them come back and now it was going to be a nail biter. I had hoped that we would come out in the 2nd half and put it away and win big but that was now out of the question. Now we just needed to win, that was all that mattered anyway. On this next drive we just had to get something to stop this momentum. But in order to get anything started we had to avoid disaster on the kickoff and we were unable to do that. There were many big plays in this game but I think most people would say that the biggest play of all came next. Richard Samuel again took the kick at the 3. This time he managed to get past the 11 and even brought it out to the 20 but then the coverage team converged on him. He wasn’t going to go much farther, but instead of preparing to go down and securing the ball, Samuel kept driving forward and the ball was knocked loose as he went down. Tech recovered at the 23. I just hoped with all my heart that his knee had been down. It was close but he wasn’t down. Tech had the ball.

Ninth Tech Possession: The absolute worst thing that could have happened had happened. I was really angry. Everything was going wrong. This slide was happening rapidly and we couldn’t stop it. On the next play, Tech gave the ball to Dwyer on a simple handoff inside of the left tackle. He busted through the line, cut it back to the right and ran down the middle of the field into the secondary, and then cut once more to make poor Ramarcus Brown fall on his ass as Dwyer motored into pay dirt in the right corner of the end zone. I was as stunned as you were. Tech was ahead.

It was a great play by Tech and very well executed but it was also another awful play by the Georgia defense. On the play, Tech lined up with a WR on either side, Dwyer straight behind Nesbitt, 5 men on the line, a blocking back lined up a step off the line and just outside the left tackle, and a wing back lined up a couple steps off the line and just outside the right tackle. They started that wing back in motion back across the left and then snapped it. Dwyer got the handoff and ran in the hole between the left guard and tackle. The RE Demarcus Dobbs had to hold his ground and make sure that Nesbitt didn’t keep it and so Dwyer got right by him. The Tech LT and center fired straight ahead and both went after Curran. Geno Atkins was the DT playing in the hole where the run was going and the Tech LG mauled him and moved him out of the play to the right. The Tech RG immediately dove at DT Corvey Irvin’s legs as soon as the ball was snapped and that cut him down momentarily and that was enough to keep him from being able to make the play. Jarius Wynn was the left DE and was not a factor in the play. Safety CJ Byrd was playing in as a left OLB on the play and the Tech RT released and sealed him off to the right. Ellerbe was playing to Curran’s right and the Tech blocking back lined up just outside the LT was to come out and block Ellerbe but Ellerbe moved inside and the blocking back had to try and swing in to block him and he slipped. So Ellerbe ended up being unblocked on the play and he was right there as Dwyer came through the hole but he didn’t even get a hand on him. He whiffed and Dwyer busted into the secondary. With Curran double teamed and Byrd sealed off to the right, the last man that had a shot was Brown but he really had no shot. He was moving in as Dwyer with a full head of steam was moving out and Dwyer is by far the superior athlete and he made Brown look like a walk-on at Samford. Reshad Jones might have been back there to make a play but he had come charging in to play against a pitch to the wing back running around the left end. It was a great play by Tech but also another horrid play by Ellerbe.

It was Tech’s 2nd one play “drive” of the half so far. They had scored 23 points in 6 minutes and 53 seconds and with 7:55 left in the 3rd quarter they went ahead for the first time in the game, 35-28.

Tenth Georgia Possession: I was so stunned by what had occurred that it overwhelmed my previous emotions of anger. Coach Richt gathered the entire team together on the sideline and had them take a knee. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to stop this slide in some way but it was too late. Whether he was trying to stop this and change things by getting his team to focus, or to calm down, or to get fired up, no matter what it was, it was really too late. This needed to come at halftime or after the TD on the first play or after the second TD or after the fumble on the kickoff. By now everybody in the stadium was well aware that the game had changed and Georgia was in a fight. Now they just had to win that fight. Samuel was out there again for the kick and it was a short one and he took it almost to the 30 and this time he held on to it. With a 5 yard penalty on Tech, the Dawgs had decent field position at the 34 and they needed to get something going. A 10 yard completion to Massa got it to the 44 and gave the Dawgs a 1st down which made things a little less tense. But things tightened right back up after back to back 3 yard gains by Knowshon left 3rd and 4 from the 50 yard line. Now came a huge play. On 3rd down Stafford dropped back and Michael Johnson came on him and sacked him back at the 43 for a loss of 7. The Dawgs would have to punt. This play was lost among so many others but it was one of the biggest plays in the game because now the Dawgs had to give Tech the ball with the lead. This slide wouldn’t stop. Now the Dawgs needed a great punt out of Brian Mimbs to just stem the slide for a moment. Mimbs did get off a good one and Tech called for a fair catch at the 13. At least we had flipped the field position.

Tenth Tech Possession: The defense was back out there but they really had no reason to be tired; 2 of Tech’s 3 drives this quarter had lasted just 1 play. And the defense had to come up big here and stop Tech while they were down on this part of the field to get the ball back so the offense could tie it up. Obviously they could allow no more points. After a 4 yard gain on 1st down, Tech called their first timeout of the half with 4:59 left in the quarter. On 2nd down, the defense stopped Dwyer after a gain of 2 to bring up 3rd and 4 from the 19. It was 3rd and manageable but it was easily the best the Dawgs had done on 1st and 2nd down this half. And this time Tech wouldn’t be able to go for it on 4th down if the Dawgs stopped them here. But Tech had succeeded with the inside run enough now to get the Dawgs cheating a bit and the defense was desperate. And if you play that way against this offense and the offense executes you will get burned. On 3rd down, Nesbitt pitched out to Jones and he got the first down and much, much more. As he was running in open space down the sidelines into Georgia territory I was hit with that terrible pang of reality for the first time: we’re gonna lose. It was an awful feeling that I don’t like to recall. Jones had gone 62 yards by the time he was brought down at the Georgia 19 yard line. The Dawgs were on the verge of being blown away. Somehow the defense regrouped to stop Dwyer after a yard on the next play. Then they threw Nesbitt for a loss of 4 to make it 3rd and 13. This was the only chance the Dawgs had: force a big loss to make 3rd down too long to run. But on 3rd and 13, Johnson reached into his bag and pulled out a play that really should have worked, and if it had I would have probably thrown something through a window. Tech rolled the play out to one side and then threw a lateral pass back in the other direction to lineman Austin Barrick. He made the catch and there was no one on the other side of the field. I almost had a heart attack as he neared the first down marker but finally he went down at the 11, 2 yards shy of the 1st down after an 11 yard gain. Johnson was livid on the sidelines and screaming at him but it looked like he simply wasn’t quite fast enough. But Johnson kept the offense on the field for 4th and 2. He had made some brilliant calls so far but this looked like one that could bite him. Tech called timeout to think it over with 1:20 on the clock It may sound strange but I was hoping as hard as I could that they would stay with it and go for it on with and 2. My thinking was that there was 16 minutes and 20 seconds left in this game and right now it didn’t look like we could stop them. Every play they ran was a run that would keep the clock moving. They used 3 plays to pick up every 1st down and then it started over again. I did not think the Dawgs could win this game if Tech made it a 2 score game. I thought their best chance was to somehow stop them here on 4th and 2 to remain down by just 7 and then try and end up with more points. If Tech got a FG here to make it a 10 point game, I really didn’t think it was going to happen for us. But Johnson came to his senses and Tech sent the FG team out instead for a chip shot. It was right through there and the Dawgs were now down 38-28. The defense had held for a FG but Tech had gone from their own 13 to the Georgia 11, going 76 yards in 7 plays and taking 4:19 off the clock. With just 1:14 remaining in the 3rd quarter the Dawgs were now 2 scores down.

Eleventh Georgia Possession: The kickoff was a touchback and that was probably a good thing for us at the moment. There was no time for the offense to struggle. They had to move the ball and do it fast. Massa, the senior, continued to have a huge day, catching passes on the first two plays of the drive for gains of 11 and 13 to make it 1st and 10 at the 44. The march continued but then a flag flew and the hopes for a quick march were dashed. It was crushingly disappointing but probably fitting that the 3rd quarter ended with a holding penalty. It was a hideous quarter during which the Dawgs were outscored 26-0 and their 16 point lead turned into a 10 point deficit. We were 15 minutes away from being the 2nd best team in the state.

4th Quarter

Eleventh Georgia Possession (Continued): The 4th quarter began with the Dawgs facing 1st and 20 from their own 34. Tech was really coming after Stafford now and on 2nd and 20 he got a pass to Moreno and he got 12 out of it to make it 3rd and 8th. On 3rd down the pass was there to Kenneth Harris but he couldn’t make the catch and it was 4th down. I thought we should go for it on 4th and 8 from the 46. I thought we had as good of a chance of picking it up as we did of stopping Tech right now. But Richt sent out Mimbs. Mimbs boomed a punt but it was too much. It went for a touchback. Nothing was going right and this thing was close to being over with.

Eleventh Tech Possession: The Dawgs were hanging by a thread as Tech took over at their own 20 with 13:50 on the clock. The defense stopped Dwyer for nothing on 1st down and that was key. Nesbitt kept it for 4 on 2nd down and then kept it again on 3rd and 6 and the Dawgs stopped him at the 26, 4 yards shy of the 1st down. Tech may have been leery of pitching it down on their end at this point in the game but regardless the defense had gotten a 3 and out when they absolutely had to. Now the Dawgs needed a punt return and they almost got one. Tech’s punter got off a bit of a line drive and Logan Gray caught it at the Dawgs 42 and brought it back into Tech territory to the 41 for a 17 yard return. He was close to breaking it but the important thing was that there was no fumble and no penalty. The Dawgs were in business and they had gotten the ball back with only a little over 2 minutes going off the clock after their punt. They were still breathing.

Twelfth Georgia Possession: The Dawgs took over with 11:39 on the clock and Massa caught another ball for 9 yards on the 1st play. But then there was another break down. The Dawgs had to call timeout to save the down on 2nd and 1 with 11:02 left. They threw it on 2nd down and it was incomplete. On 3rd and 1 they tried to sneak for it but Stafford didn’t wait to let the block get set up and stopped himself for no gain. Well, this was the game right here. On 4th and 1 the Dawgs decided to put it in Knowshon’s hands and he picked up the 1st and broke it down the sideline for the touchdown, 32 yards, to make it a FG game with 10:23 still to play. I remember thinking that having it go to 4th down was probably the best thing that could happen because Tech went with a short yardage defense and sold out and that created the opportunity for the long run. The drive was 41 yards in just 4 plays and took only 1:16. And time was as important as scoring at this point. There was hope.

Twelfth Tech Possession: It was 38-35. The defense needed to keep Tech out of the end zone to give us a shot. Blair Walsh’s kick went only to the 7 and Tech returned it out to the 30. After a pickup of 5 on 1st down, Nesbitt was shaken up and had to come out of the game. He was replaced by the limited Jaybo Shaw who was promptly stopped after a 1 yard gain. It was 3rd and 4 from the 36 and Nesbitt was out of the game. There was still over 9 minutes on the clock and Tech would not be able to risk going for it on 4th down from here. This was the Dawgs’ shot. But they just couldn’t hold them. On 3rd down, Shaw pitched it to Jones and he picked it up easily, reaching the 43 for a gain of 7. The clock continued to roll. Shaw was stopped easily after only a 1 yard run on 1st down and then the defense held Dwyer to a short gain. Nesbitt came back in on 3rd and 7 from the 46. If the Dawgs couldn’t stop them here it wasn’t going to happen. Jones got the pitch out again and he got around the end and got the first down and then pulled away from John Knox down the right sidelines. Rashad Jones tried to bump him out of bounds at the 37 but he stayed on his feet and stayed in bounds and went all the way for a touchdown. The play was for 54 yards and capped a 6 play, 70 yard drive that took 3:10 off the clock and made it a 2 score game again. Actually, once I saw that he had it picked up easily I was kind of glad that he went all the way because I figured our best chance was to score, get the onsides kick, and score again. We weren’t going to stop these guys again, that was clear. Again, it was a good play by Tech but another ugly play by the Georgia defense. On the play, Dwyer went up the middle and LE Dobbs pinched in and crushed him and Nesbitt pulled the ball out and ran the option right. Curran was the MLB and he waited to see if Nesbitt handed off and then charged towards Nesbitt. The QB then pitched it out to Jones who took it at about the line of scrimmage. I don’t know if John Knox didn’t know what his assignment was or if he just didn’t do the play correctly but he didn’t keep outside contain and as Jones got the pitch he was already well outside Knox and only needed to beat him to point “A” which was the Georgia 47. He got by him and Knox had to dive and try and bring him down by his collar which he grabbed hold of as Jones was crossing the 50 yard line. Jones kept going across the 47 for the 1st down as Knox tried to pull him down but he could not. Jones finally broke free at the 46 and then continued down the right sideline. On the play, Asher Allen had been the CB on that side of the field and once he read that it was definitely the option he just did not get to the sideline quickly enough to have any impact on the play. It was a tough play but he really failed miserably to give any help. Likewise with Reshad Jones who was the last line of defense. He was moving towards the sideline with the flow of the play from the snap but the blocking back was able to get to him and dive and cut his legs out from under him. He got up but by that time Roddy Jones had a head of steam and was turning the corner. Because Knox held Roddy Jones up for a second Reshad Jones was actually able to catch up with him 10 yards down the field. But Reshad didn’t try to tackle the RB, he just tried to bump him out of bounds and he failed. He was hit from behind by a lineman right before he made the attempt and that may have affected him but even still it was a poor effort.

With the TD it was a 2 score game again with 7:13 left. Tech had scored so quick that the Dawgs weren’t quite dead yet but it was getting harder and harder to believe that they weren’t going to lose this game.

Thirteenth Georgia Possession: Tech kicked a squib and the Dawgs started at their 28 with just over 7 minutes to play. Moreno took a pass 22 yards to midfield on the first play of the drive but then a holding penalty stalled the drive. On 2nd and 20 Stafford tried to run and could only get back to the line of scrimmage. The noose was tightening. But then Massa came through again, making a catch and picking up enough after the catch for a 1st down at the 37 of Tech after a gain of 23. Another mistake came when the Dawgs had to burn their 2nd timeout with the clock stopped after an incomplete pass on 1st and 10. The dump pass to Moreno worked again as he busted it for 23 more. Then on 3rd and 9 from the 12, Stafford rifled a pass to Green for the touchdown to make it 48-45 with 4 minutes and 4 seconds to play. The Dawgs had gone 72 yards in 9 plays over 3:09 to give the defense one more shot. I was hoping for an onsides kick but the Dawgs decided to kick it deep…or at least as deep as Walsh could kick it which was only to the 7. Tech brought it all the way out to the 44.

Thirteenth Tech Possession: There was no room for error. I had no confidence we could stop them and even less after Dwyer picked up 6 on 1st down. The defense held him to 1 yard on 2nd to bring up 3rd and 3 from the Dawgs’ 49. They had one more chance. On 3rd down, Nesbitt kept it himself and moved the ball to the 45 for a gain of 4 and a 1st down. That put the game away. Georgia had only 1 timeout left and as long as Tech didn’t shit themselves the streak was over. Nesbitt ran the ball to kill clock and went down at the line of scrimmage on 1st down and we called our final timeout with 1:36 left. There wasn’t enough time for another chance. Nesbitt ran for 4 yards on 2nd down and Tech ran the clock down to 48 seconds and took a timeout. Nesbitt took a knee and they ran the clock down as far as they could and then took a delay penalty. On 4th down Nesbitt snapped the ball and let the clock get to zero and then took a knee to end the game with Tech winning it, 45-42. I was shocked, depressed, and angry. And I still am though not quite so much as at that moment.

Numbers: The stats for this game are about what you’d expect for Georgia: some good and some bad. The Dawgs ran for 81 yards and threw for 407 yards for a total of 488 yards. The Dawgs allowed 409 yards rushing and 19 yards passing for a total of 428 yards. Georgia out gained Tech by 60 yards, 488-428. The Dawgs out passed Tech by 388 yards, 407-19, but Tech out gained Georgia by 328 yards on the ground, 409-81. The Dawgs ran for 81 yards on 22 attempts, an average of 3.7 yards per carry. Tech ran 56 times for 409 yards, averaging 7.3 yards a carry. Actually, if you throw out the 4 Tech offensive plays after the Nesbitt 4 yard run on 3rd and 3 that iced the game Tech’s numbers offensively are even better. Everything after that 1st down was really irrelevant, Tech just had to run the clock out without turning the ball over. They ran 4 times for no gain, 4 yards, a 2 yard loss, and a 4 yard loss totaling -2 yards. So really they ran 52 times for 411 yards, an average of 7.90 yards per carry. Georgia had 7 more 1st downs than Tech (22-15).

Georgia was 6 for 13 on 3rd down conversions and 1 for 2 on 4th down. Tech was just 4 for 13 on 3rd down conversions and 1 for 4 on 4th down. But again, you really have to say Tech was 4 for 12 on 3rd down since the last series didn’t matter. And they were more like 1 for 2 on 4th down because you have to take out the final series of the 1st half when they threw deep on 4th down with no time left and the final series of the game. Tech caused 2 turnovers, both in Georgia territory, and turned them into 13 points. Georgia caused 1 turnover but you can really throw that out because it came on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the 1st half with no time on the clock. Tech had 1 INT returned 35 yards for a TD, and they recovered 1 fumble for no return. Georgia had 1 INT returned for 3 yards but again it was an irrelevant pick. Tech had the game’s only defensive TD. Tech was 1 for 1 on FG attempts, while the Dawgs did not try a FG. Tech was technically 2 for 4 on 2-pt conversions but really they were 2 for 3 because the other one was a bad snap on a PAT try. The Dawgs were charged with 7 penalties for 64 yards. Tech was charged with 5 penalties for 35 yards but it was more like 4 penalties for 30 yards because a 5 yard delay of game penalty on the final series of the game was irrelevant. Tech had a 7 minute advantage in time of possession. The Dawgs gave up 2 sacks for a -14 yards and did not record a sack on defense. Georgia had 1 negative rushing play for -3 yards and Tech had 4 negative rushing plays for -12 yards. But again, if you take out a pair of negative rushing plays on that final series Tech really only had 2 negative rushing plays for -6 yards.

Georgia returned 7 kickoffs for an average of 17.1 yards; Tech returned 5 for an average of 22.0 yards. Georgia had 1 punt return for 17 yards; Tech had 2 punt returns for 12 yards. Georgia punted 4 times for an average of 48.3 yards per punt, had 1 touchback, and put 1 inside the 20; Tech punted 4 times for an average of 30.8 yards per punt, had no touchbacks, and put 1 inside the 20.

Matt Stafford had a great game other than the one big mistake. He completed 24 of 39 pass attempts (61.5%) for 407 yards, 5 TD, and 1 INT. He was sacked twice and was charged with intentional grounding for a loss of 10. Knowshon Moreno had a very good game, rushing for 94 yards and a TD on only 17 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He also caught 4 passes for 74 yards. Mohamed Massaquoi had a spectacular day, making 11 catches for 180 yards and 3 touchdowns. AJ Green caught 4 passes for 64 yards and a TD. Mikey Moore caught 2 passes for 31 yards; Kenneth Harris had 1 catch for 31 yards; Shaun Chapas had 1 catch for 26 yards; and Tripp Chandler had a 1 yard TD catch. The Dawgs did not really have a standout on defense. For Tech, Josh Nesbitt was just 1 for 6 for 19 yards, no TD, and 1 INT, but that pick was irrelevant. He was never sacked and he ran 18 times for 40 yards, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry. He threw incomplete on one 2-pt conversion attempt and ran to convert another 2-pt attempt. But Nesbitt’s value in this game doesn’t show up in the stats. He did a brilliant job of running the option offense for Tech. Roddy Jones had 13 carries for 214 yards and 2 TD, averaging 16.5 yards per carry. Jonathan Dwyer carried 20 times for 144 yards and 2 TD, averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and he also ran for a 2-pt conversion. Lucas Cox ran for a 2 yard TD; Austin Barrick had 1 carry for 11 yards; and Demaryius Thomas caught the only reception for Tech, a 19 yard completion on their first play of the game. Michael Johnson was Tech’s defense of player of the game, making 7 tackles, a sack for a 7 yard loss, another tackle for a loss of 3 yards, and 1 pass break up. Morgan Burnett returned an INT 35 yards for a TD and had 6 tackles. Marcus Wright recovered a fumble.

Georgia had 25 offensive plays that gained at least 10 yards; 10 that gained at least 20 yards; 3 that gained at least 30 yards; and 1 play that went for 49 yards. Tech had 9 offensive plays that gained at least 10 yards; 5 that gained at least 20 yards; 4 that gained at least 30 yards; 3 that gained at least 50 yards; and 2 plays that gained at least 60 yards. Georgia outscored Tech 7-6 in the 1st quarter; 21-6 in the 2nd quarter; 28-12 in the 1st half, and 14-7 in the 4th quarter. Tech outscored Georgia 26-0 in the 3rd quarter and 33-14 in the 2nd half. Georgia led 14-12 after the teams alternated scoring the first 4 TD’s. Then Georgia outscored Tech 14-0 over the final 7 minutes of the 1st half. Then Tech went on a 26-0 run. Georgia outscored Tech 14-7 in the final 10 and a half minutes of the game.

Georgia had 13 possessions and scored 6 touchdowns, punted 4 times, turned the ball over twice, and turned it over on downs once. Tech had 13 possessions and scored 5 touchdowns and 1 FG, punted 4 times, turned the ball over once, and turned it over on downs twice. In reality 2 of Tech’s possessions don’t really count because 1 was cut short at the end of the 1st half and the other was at the end of the game.

Other Keys to the Game

Kickoffs: The Dawgs had problems with special teams at times during the season and the Tech game was certainly one of those times. The Dawgs were put at a major disadvantage by their struggles kicking off and returning kickoffs. Blair Walsh kicked off 7 times in the game. He did not have a single touchback. In fact, none of his kicks even reached the end zone. He kicked to the 7 twice, the 9 once, the 11 once, the 28 once, and 2 of his kicks went out of bounds. Tech kicked off 8 times, had 1 touchback, and never kicked the ball out of bounds. Tech’s kickoff went to the 1, the 2, the 3 twice, the 12, the 16, the 17, and the other went to the end zone for a touchback. On Georgia’s 7 kickoffs, Tech had returns of 12, 12, 23, 26, and 37 yards for an average return of 22 yards, and the other 2 kicks went out of bounds. On Tech’s 8 kickoffs, Georgia had returns of 8, 11, 12, 13, 21 (fumbled at the end), 23, and 33 yards for an average return of 17.1 yards, and the other kick was a touchback.

Field Position: Going along with the problems on kickoff and kickoff returns, the Dawgs were at a big disadvantage throughout the game in terms of field position. Georgia’s 7 first half possessions began at their own 34, 33, 15, 25, 24, 36, and 44 for an average starting position of their own 30. Not including the fumbled kickoff Georgia’s 5 2nd half possessions began at their own 11, 34, 20, and 28, and at Tech’s 41 for an average starting position of their own 28.5. For the game, Georgia’s average starting field position was their own 30. In the 1st half, Tech’s 6 possessions began at their own 40, 40, 35, 23, 24, and 40 for an average starting position of their own 33.5. In the 2nd half, Tech’s 7 possessions began at their own 40, 44, 13, 20, 30, 44, and at Georgia’s 23 for an average starting position of their own 38.5. For the game, Tech’s average starting field position was their own 36. Georgia only started 3 possessions at their own 35 or better; Tech began 8 drives at their own 35 or better and started 7 drives at their own 40 or better.

Offensive Line: Everyone knows that inexperience and injury along the offensive line gave Georgia problems this season and it was a problem again in the Tech game. Because Georgia amassed almost 500 yards and scored 42 points it is easy to put all the blame for this game on the defense and special teams. But really the offense had some problems as well and most of those were a result of more struggles by the offensive line. The OL was directly responsible for 5 of the 7 Georgia penalties and 40 of 64 penalty yards (2 false starts and 3 holding calls). And the OL was indirectly responsible for another penalty and 10 more penalty yards if you throw in the 10 yard penalty for intentional grounding. Outside of the intentional grounding play the Dawgs allowed 2 sacks for a loss of 14 yards and had 9 rushing plays for 2 yards or less, including 5 for no gain and 1 for a loss of 3. The penalties, the sacks, and the plays for minimal gain or a loss killed drives. If you want to take it even further you could say that the pick-six was the result of Stafford hurrying his decision but that’s definitely debatable.

16 Minutes of Hell: The difference in this game was the 3rd quarter and I’ve extended that to include the first minute of the 4th quarter. There were other similar periods of bad play in the Florida and Alabama games and even in the Kentucky game. But this was as bad a 16 minute stretch as Georgia has had under Richt. During those 16 minutes the Dawgs were out scored 26-0 and a 28-12 lead turned into a 38-12 deficit. Georgia had 4 possessions during those 16 minutes and they went punt, fumble, punt, punt, gaining 47 yards on 12 plays (not including punts, kick returns, and penalties) and picking up 3 first downs. They were 0 for 3 on 3rd down, gave up a sack for a loss of 7, and got penalized 10 yards for holding. The Dawgs returned 4 kickoffs during that time for 8 yards, a fumble, 13 yards, and a touchback. Georgia’s only kickoff during that time went out of bounds. 1 of Georgia’s 3 punts during that time was a touchback. Defensively the Dawgs gave up 179 yards on 18 plays, an average of 9.94 yards per play, and Tech’s 4 possessions went TD, TD, TD, FG. Tech went 2 for 2 on 2-pt conversions during that time. The defense allowed 2 different 1 play scoring drives and committed a 14 yard pass interference penalty. The defense allowed gains of 60, 23, 62, and 11 yards. Tech went 1 for 3 on 3rd down and 1 for 1 on 4th down. Other than that everything went well.

Tackling and 2nd Half Defense: This goes along with the problems in the 16 minutes of hell. The tackling by Georgia’s linebackers and defensive backs was atrocious, particularly in the 2nd half. The defense struggled in this game but mostly in the 2nd half. Actually, Georgia did a pretty good job defensively in the 1st half. Now, whether it was just a matter of Tech actually executing in the 2nd half, Georgia getting lucky in the 1st half, or Georgia’s defense getting tired in the 2nd half, for some reason Georgia did stop Tech in the 1st half and didn’t at all in the 2nd half. I choose to think it was a lack of focus, discipline, technique, intensity, and attitude that was the difference. I think that was an issue all season and it showed up again in the Tech game. The defense was satisfied with their performance at halftime and came out flat in the 2nd half. Obviously at some point the defense woke up but at that point their lack of discipline and focus and technique hurt them because of the nature of Tech’s option offense. You have to play under control against Tech’s offense and Georgia’s defense did that in the 1st half but not the 2nd.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact of the matter is that Georgia’s defense shut Tech’s offense down in the first half. The numbers bear this out. Tech’s 6 first half possessions ended in turn over on downs, punt, TD, punt, punt, interception. Tech’s offense scored only once in the 1st half; the other TD was a pick-6. Tech was 0 for 2 on 2-pt tries in the 1st half (1 was a fumbled snap on a PAT). Tech was 0 for 5 on 3rd down and 0 for 2 on 4th down in the 1st half. Their 6 drives resulted in 28 plays for 127 yards and they totaled 5 first downs. Georgia’s defense allowed only 4 plays of 10 yards or more in the 1st half, only 1 play for more than 19 yards, and no play longer than 36 yards. I don’t think I have to tell you that those numbers are drastically different than the 2nd half numbers.

Some Final Thoughts

The above keys to the recap and the above keys to the game should serve as an answer to why Georgia lost this game. The question that we still don’t know the answer to is what this game meant for the future. There are reasons to believe that this game will prove to be a fluke. Georgia’s roster was decimated by injury and you have to question the team’s mental state after the disappointments and the losses. There’s no doubt that this game meant more to Tech so the motivational factor was on their side. This was the first time Georgia had ever played against Tech’s new offense. Tech played a very clean game, Georgia committed 2 killer turnovers, and it was still just a 3 point game. All of these things are true and it may turn out to be just a blip in the road. Georgia may win the next 5 in a row or 9 of the next 10. This may end up being an aberration.

I may be influenced by natural inclination to be pessimistic about things but in my opinion there are a lot more reasons to think that this last game will turn out to be something other than a fluke. You have to remember that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Tech and this was their first year under Johnson and running his system. Johnson hasn’t even had a chance to get his own players specifically suited to running his style of offense. And this was a season which Georgia began ranked #1 in the country. Now, clearly they didn’t turn out to be the team people expected them to be and they suffered a lot of injuries, but look at the talent Georgia had. This team had 4 of the best offensive players that Georgia has ever had and 3 of those players are now gone. My point is that there is good reason to believe that Tech is only going to get better over the next few years, while Georgia will have to rebuild before they field a team as talented as this one. Also, this game was at home and Georgia was coming off of a bye week and thus had 14 days to prepare for the offense. So if Georgia wasn’t able to beat Tech this year when they had so much on their side then why would they have an easier time in the years to come? At the very least history says that Tech will likely enjoy more than 1 year of success. Stand alone victories have been rare in this rivalry. A win by one side is almost always followed by another. And don’t think that things can’t change dramatically in a rivalry like this. Lloyd Carr was 5-1 against Ohio State in his first 6 seasons as head coach. Then in 2001 Jim Tressel took over as head coach of the Buckeyes and Carr went 1-6 against Ohio State over the next 7 years before retiring.

I’m hoping that this loss will end up having some positive impact on Georgia football. I think it can but I do think it needs to be a wakeup call for the program and the Bulldawg Nation. Those fans who have claimed in recent times that Tech is not our biggest rivalry need to get a grip. Tech is Georgia’s biggest rival and it is the biggest game and it always will be. Georgia needs to start making beating Tech a priority because Tech is certainly making it a priority to beat Georgia.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Falcons Blog: Review of Weeks 13-17 and the Playoffs

I've been very busy over the last couple of months and I have only had time to do the blogs that have to be updated weekly. I haven't done a Falcons Blog since Thanksgiving. This amazing miracle season is now over and I've completed reviews of the final 5 weeks of the regular season and the Wild Card Playoffs. This blog is going to be really long because it is basically 6 reviews in 1 blog but if you only want to read a certain review you can just scroll down until you find it. What a year to be a Falcons fan, huh! Here's hoping that next year we put an end to that little haunting factoid about never having back to back winning seasons.

Week 13: @ San Diego, win, 22-16.

General Comments: When I looked at the schedule going into this season, I thought this was the most unwinnable game on the Falcons’ schedule. Obviously, by the time the game rolled around we had learned a whole lot about both teams. However, I doubted this Falcons team. I did not think they’d be able to go all the way to the other side of the country and beat one of the most talented teams in the League, a team that was (or at least should have been) desperate. Apparently Vegas didn’t think so either, as they had the Falcons as 6.5 point underdogs in this one.

I had a feeling of impending heartbreak all game. There were too many moments that seemed like “we’ll look back at this with regret” moments. The Falcons certainly didn’t play their best and a lot of breaks went against them. But they pulled it out anyway and that was almost as impressive as a flawless performance might have been. For me it was yet another instance of gleeful surprise. To beat a team as talented as the Chargers on the road was an achievement I did not expect. To win on the west coast after an emotional win at home over the Panthers was also no small feat.

First Quarter Comments: I wasn’t that surprised when the Chargers went for it on 4th and 3 from the Atlanta 34 on their first drive of the game. The Falcons broke up a pass to stop the Chargers on downs, getting the game off to a good start. The Falcons then did a good job of getting something out of the nice field position, driving 49 yards and getting a 35 yard field goal from Jason Elam for the game’s first score. After the defense limited SD to 1 first down and stopped their drive at the 38 on their next possession, the Falcons were in control of the game, but a costly mistake turned things around. I can see why Harry Douglas wanted to try and return the punt, as it bounced right to him and he would likely have been able to get past the first man. And you almost never see a guy muff a punt off of a bounce but HD did and the Chargers recovered at the Atlanta 20. I thought this was a fairly devastating turnover. SD quickly turned it into points, crossing the 20 yards to the end zone on 4 plays, with LT scoring on a 3rd yard run to put the Chargers ahead, 7-3. At this point I was pretty sick about things because the turnover had had such a huge effect on the game. But I kind of started to look at the game the way I had looked at the Philly game, not getting all that upset because I was under the assumption that we weren’t going to win. I thought this costly mistake would kill any chance we had of pulling off the upset. Fortunately the Falcons were not thinking this way. Their next possession began at the 36 and Matt Ryan completed a 38 yard pass to Roddy White to take the ball down to the SD 26. The Falcons would get a 40 yard field goal from Elam on the final play of the quarter to make it a 1 point game.

Second Quarter Comments: The Falcons defense stopped SD for a 3 and out on their next possession and then HD started to make up for his fumble with a 32 yard punt return to the SD 46. The Falcons went on an 8 play scoring drive to take the lead. Michael Turner gained 8 yards on 3rd and 1 from the 37 for a 1st down at the 29. On 4th and 1 from the 20, the Falcons went for it and gave the ball to Ovie Mughelli who gained 2 yards for a 1st down at the 18. On the next play Ryan tossed a beautiful pass to Justin Peele, placing it between defenders into Peele’s arms in the end zone for an 18 yard TD strike to give the Falcons a 13-7 lead.

Momentum continued to build in Atlanta’s favor on the ensuing kickoff, as the Falcons coverage team stifled a gimmick return by the Chargers at the SD 8. A false start backed them up to the 4, and then the Falcons stuck LT in the backfield, nearly getting him down in the end zone for a safety. The ball was spotted at the 1 and then Tomlinson ran to the 5 on 2nd down. On 3rd and 13 from the 5, Phillip Rivers dropped back to pass and John Abraham bowled over the offensive line and got to Rivers in the end zone. Rivers threw the ball away indiscriminately and the refs called intentional grounding while in the end zone, resulting in a safety to make it a 15-7 Falcons lead. The Falcs may have made a big mistake early but now everything was going their way. They got the ball at the 34 following the free kick and began matriculating the ball down the field once again. Turner ran for gains of 11 and 9 yards on the first 2 plays of the drive. On 3rd and 8 from the SD 41, Ryan hit Michael Jenkins down the right side of the field for a gain of 22, taking the ball to the 19. On 3rd and 3 from the 12, Jerious Norwood went around right end for a gain of 10 yards, taking the ball to the San Diego 2 yard line. Michael Turner was stopped for no gain on 1st and goal and then got stopped at the 1 on 2nd down. After an encroachment penalty on the Chargers that moved the ball less than a yard closer, the Falcons gave the ball to Mughelli on a quick handoff and he was stopped for no gain, bringing up 4th and goal from the 1 with a minute left in the half. Smith now faced a huge decision. A field goal would make it a 2 score game, but settling for 3 points in this situation would be a definite victory for the Charger defense and the Falcons might regret not going for it later. A touchdown would give the Falcons a 15 point lead going to the half with Atlanta set to get the ball first in the 2nd half. If the Falcons went for it and didn’t make it, it would remain a 1 score game and the Chargers would take a ton of momentum into halftime. You expected Mike Smith to go for it and I was glad that he did. The Falcons gave the ball to Turner on a run up the gut and for a moment it looked like they had it as the O-Line didn’t allow penetration from the D-Line, but Turner left his feet and a San Diego linebacker filled the hole and knocked him back without allowing Turner to put the ball across the plane. The Chargers had come up with a huge stop to keep themselves very much in the game. I definitely think going for it was the right call and I even think that trying to run the ball 4 straight times was totally fine, as the Falcons wanted to be a team built on a tough, hardnosed rushing attack, and this was the type of spot where such a team would be able to get the ball over the line if given 4 chances to do so from the 2 yard line or closer. I like the idea of giving Turner 2 chances from the 2 and then giving Mughelli a chance from the 1. The only thing I had a problem with was the decision to give it to Turner on 4th down from inside the 1. Whenever the line to gain (in this case the goal line) is less than a yard on 4th down, I don’t see why you would ever even bother with handing the ball off. Just have the quarterback go low up the middle. If you get any kind of a push the refs are going to give you the call because there is rarely a clear view the way there might be on a run by a back. This was an extremely disheartening development. Not only did the Falcons get no points when they should have had 7, it gave the Chargers a ton of momentum, and you also had to wonder if getting stuffed on 4 straight plays like that might have a negative effect on the team’s mental state. I couldn’t believe how bad it felt to be up 15-7 at halftime. But the thing was that you felt like the Falcons should have been up 22-0.

Third Quarter Comments: I thought it was crucial that the Falcons go down and score on their opening possession of the 3rd quarter in order to take back some of the momentum that the Chargers had grabbed late in the 2nd. It appeared that Atlanta would do just that. On 3rd and 7 from the 24, Matty Ryan threw deep downfield for Roddy White and Eric Weddle committed blatant pass interference. The result was a 40 yard gain and a 1st down at the SD 36. On 2nd and 5 from the 20, the Charger defense turned in a good play, dragging Turner down for a 3 yard loss to bring up 3rd and 8 from the 23. Ryan dropped back and fired a strike to Brian Finneran who made the catch and exerted great effort to drive for the first down, but as Finn was trying to reach the 15 yard line the ball was pulled free and it was picked up by Weddle who returned it down the left sideline, 86 yards for a touchdown to make the score 15-13. The Falcons challenged that Finn never had control of the ball and it was close but the play was upheld. The Chargers then lined up to go for 2. The defense did a great job reacting to the situation. Rivers tried to gun a ball in to a receiver in the left side of the end zone and the pass was broken up to maintain the Falcon’s 2 point lead. I thought this was a huge play. For one thing, it kept the Chargers from tying the game and stemmed their momentum slightly. But it also meant that in spite of everything, the Falcons only needed to score a TD to make it a 2 score game again.

The Falcons struggled to convert on short yardage situations again on their next possession, with Turner getting stopped for a 1 yard gain on 2nd and 3, and Norwood getting stopped for a 1 yard gain on 3rd and 2 to bring up a punting situation. Michael Koenen got off a beautiful punt and the Chargers wound up pinned at their own 6. SD needed only a FG to take the lead, but on 3rd and 1 from their 29, LT was hit by Michael Boley and dropped for no gain and the Chargers had to punt the ball back to Atlanta. This was one of the key plays of the game. On the next Falcons possession, they were faced with a 3rd and 2 at their own 36. Ryan went right back to Finn on a pass to the left and he made the catch for a 7 yard gain and a 1st down at the 43. A long pass to White and a 15 yard run by Turner got the Falcons inside the red zone but once again they were facing a 3rd and 1, this time from the 8 yard line. And this time the Falcons called a QB sneak and Ryan got the 1st down. The quarter ended with the Falcons threatening and still leading by 2.

Fourth Quarter Comments: The Falcons faced a 3rd and goal from the 5 yard line at the start of the 4th quarter. Ryan took the snap and fired a bullet into the left corner of the end zone that Douglas snagged for a TD on the 1st play of the 4th quarter. The Falcons now led by 9 points, 22-13. The Chargers would need 2 scores to come back and win. On the next Charger drive, the Atlanta defense stopped Malcolm Floyd 2 yards shy of the 1st down marker on a reception on 3rd and 13 to bring up a 4th and 2 from the SD 41. Norv Turner elected not to go for it and the Chargers punted the ball away and downed it at the 10, but there were offsetting penalties on the play and thus the down was replayed. This seemed to be a bad break for the Chargers, as it might be hard for them to pin the Falcons any closer than the 10. However, it actually turned out to be a tremendous break for the Chargers, as they were able to see the kind of coverage that the Falcons were choosing to run, and when it appeared that they would go with the exact same coverage on the re-kick, San Diego called for a fake. Jacob Hester got the direct snap and went around the right end for a gain of 28 and a 1st down at the Atlanta 31. But San Diego couldn’t use the great play as a springboard to a score. On 3rd and 4 from the 25, Rivers threw deep for Vincent Jackson and missed him to bring up 4th down. The Chargers needed 2 scores and they elected to try and get the field goal here. Nate Kaeding came out for a 42 yard try, but Jamaal Anderson got a paw up and blocked it. This was obviously a huge play and it was at this moment that I started to feel like we might not suffer a nightmarish unhappy ending after all.

The color analyst working the game for Fox criticized Curtis Lofton for running back and picking up the blocked field goal at the 6 and bringing it back to the 25, saying that you never touch a blocked field goal that crosses the line of scrimmage. But Lofton was just trying to make a play and there was little risk because no Charger players went downfield after the ball. And he made it back to the original line of scrimmage anyway. Ryan threw complete to White on 3rd and 4 for a gain of 13 and a 1st down at the 44. But on the next play, the Chargers forced Michael Turner to fumble and Quentin Jammer recovered at the Falcons’ 45. The Falcons challenged again and again it was close but the refs upheld the ruling on the field. So now I was nervous again and imaging tragic endings. There was 9:05 left in the ball game and the Chargers had the ball at the Falcons’ 45 yard line down 9 points. Rivers tried to run on a 1st down play from the 34 and Chauncey Davis knocked the ball loose but Rivers fell on it at the 31. On 3rd and 1 from the 25, Rivers picked up the 1st down on a QB sneak. The Chargers got a 1st down at the 12 but the Falcons defense held to bring up 4th and 8 from the 10 and force a FG. Kaeding made this one to bring the score to 22-16 with 5:15 to play.

I was not feeling good at the moment because that 6 point lead was so very different from a 7 point lead. There was definitely time for the Chargers to get the ball back and score a TD to beat the Falcons by a point. Atlanta started their next possession at their own 19 but on 1st down Michael Turner drove through the defense for a pickup of 9 yards. That seemed to guarantee that the Falcons would get at least 1 first down on this possession, but that’s just not how things went on this day. Turner went up the middle on 2nd and 1 and got stopped for no gain. On 3rd and 1, Turner went off right tackle and was stopped short again. The Falcons would have to punt. As the clock ticked under 3 minutes to play, Koenen got off a beauty of a punt to the dangerous Darren Sproles. Sproles received the kick at the 17 and skirted for 12 yards to move the ball out to the 29. But Hester was hit with a costly clip that pushed SD back to their own 19. There was 2:46 left, the Chargers had 2 timeouts, and they needed a TD. I just hoped to Darwin that the defense would not suffer a repeat of the late stages of the Chicago and Denver games. Far from it. Rivers dropped a pass off to LT on 1st down and the Falcon defenders pushed him out of bounds for no gain. On 2nd down, big John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux combined to drag Rivers down for a sack and a loss of 9 yards. This may have been the biggest defensive play of the game. On 3rd and 19 from the 10, Rivers threw deep for Jackson and it went incomplete and San Diego had no choice but to punt. The kick went out of bounds at the SD 42 and the 2 minute warning hit with the Falcons still leading by 6 points and needing just 1 more 1st down to ice this win. On 1st down, Turner went up the middle for 3 yards and the Chargers called their 2nd timeout with 1:53 remaining. On 2nd and 7, Turner busted off right end for a pickup of 14 yards and a 1st down at the Chargers 25. San Diego called their last timeout to stop the clock at the 1:45 mark but it was fruitless. The Falcons got in victory formation and Ryan kneeled 3 times to melt away the final 105 seconds and cement the upset win on the road, 22-16.

Numbers: The Falcons outgained the Chargers by 147 yards, 348-201, and had 7 more 1st downs (20-13). Atlanta doubled up SD in rushing yards, 141-70. The Falcons were 8 for 16 on 3rd down and 1 for 2 on 4th down, while the Chargers were just 3 for 12 on 3rd down and 0 for 1 on 4th down. The Falcons committed only 3 penalties for 20 yards, while San Diego was penalized 9 times for 84 yards. Strangely, the Falcons lost the turnover battle 3-0, but they won the sack battle 3-0, blocked a field goal, recorded a safety, and broke up a 2 point conversion try. The Falcons had about a 10 minute edge in time of possession. Matty Ryan played another error free game, completing 17 of 23 passes for 207 yards, 2 TD, and no picks. Michael Turner carried the ball 31 times and ran for 120 yards, averaging 3.9 yards a carry. Roddy White hauled in 6 passes for 112 yards, going over 1,000 yards receiving for the season. Jason Elam went 2 for 2 on field goal tries while Nate Kaeding was 1 for 2. Michael Koenen averaged 53 yards a punt and both of his punts pinned the Chargers inside their own 20. The Falcons defense did a brilliant job holding down the Chargers 3 main offensive weapons: Rivers, LT, and Antonio Gates. Rivers was just 17 of 30 for 149 yards and no TD. LT rushed 14 times for just 24 yards, averaging just 1.7 yards a carry. LT did score a TD and he caught 5 passes for 42 yards. Gates caught 3 balls for 27 yards and no TD.

Final Comment: As I stated in the beginning of the review, I originally thought this was the most unwinnable game on the Falcons’ schedule and even just before the game I didn’t think the team would be able to pull it off. But they went across country and won as 6.5 point underdogs. And really the score was closer than the game really was. The Falcons handled the Chargers in all 3 phases: offense, defense, and special teams. There were certainly some bad parts: the 3 turnovers, the struggles on short yardage plays, the fake punt, etc. But the fact that all of those things happened and the Falcons were still able to come away with a win over a talented team on the road was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the victory. The win got the Falcons to 8-4 on the season and guaranteed that the Falcons would not have a losing record in 2008, and that by its self was pretty big. They needed just 1 more win over their final 4 games to have a winning record, a thing that hasn’t exactly grown on trees around these parts.

Week 14: @ New Orleans, Loss, 25-29.

General Comments: Going into this game I was finally starting to expect the Falcons to win even when it would be understandable to lose. I thought the Falcons stood a very good chance of beating the Saints in New Orleans and I really had a good feeling that they would get it done. The Falcons were 3 point underdogs going into this one but they had been 6.5 point underdogs the week before and had pulled out a victory. The Saints were missing a number of key players and Reggie Bush had not looked like himself since coming back from an injury. The Falcons had beaten the Saints by 14 points at home a month before and it hadn’t even been as close as the score indicated. The Saints caught a Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play of the game for a meaningless score to make it 34-20, so the Falcons really won by 3 touchdowns. I knew that the Falcons hadn’t been quite as good on the road as they had been at home this year, and I knew that the Saints had been tough at the Superdome, but I didn’t think the home crowd would be worth 21 points. Historically, the Superdome hasn’t been that big of an advantage for the Saints, and it’s not like the Falcons would have to travel a long distance and play in a strange environment. They would be taking an hour flight to play in a dome against a team they were very familiar with. I really liked our chances.

While the Falcons did not play badly and this was not an easy game to win, you had the feeling that the Falcons let an opportunity slip away when they came away with a loss in this game. It was there for the taking but some mistakes and missed chances proved costly in the end. Although throughout the game there were a number of moments that made me worry, I really felt the Falcons were going to end up winning the game until they punted the ball away late in the 4th when still down by 4 points. Once again the Falcons played hard and stayed in the game but this time they couldn’t find a way to win it.

First Quarter Comments: During the first 5 minutes of the game I became further convinced that we were going to win this game. The Saints tried to establish the run on their first series, handing the ball off to Pierre Thomas on 3 straight plays, but after allowing 7 yards on 1st down, the Atlanta defense stuffed Thomas for 2 yards on 2nd down and then dropped him for a loss of 1 on 3rd and 1. This was the sort of thing that had hurt the Saints early on in the first game. Following the Saints’ 3 and out, the Falcons started to move the ball down the field on their first possession. Michael Turner gained 26 yards on his first carry and 9 on his 2nd. After Ovie Mughelli picked up 2 yards on a 2nd and 1 from the New Orleans 29 the Falcons had a 1st and 10 from the 27. Turner was stopped after a gain of 1 and Matt Ryan dropped back to throw on 2nd and 9. He locked on to Roddy White and tried to throw a quick hook pass to him to the left side. Jason David read it all the way and ran up and picked it off. At first it looked like a sure pick 6 but White caught David from behind and brought him down at the 48 after a return of 23 yards. That was a good effort by White. The tendency to lock onto a receiver was something I had seen early on from Ryan and it’s a common habit of young quarterbacks. David may also have picked something up from watching Ryan in the first game or from the fact that there was more tape available of Ryan than there had been the first time the two teams played. Either way, it was 1 of the worst plays of the year so far by Matty. He hasn’t made many at all, but I felt at the time like this one might end up being very costly. The Falcons had been moving the ball down the field and it just felt like he rushed it a little bit on that play. The Falcons should have at least gotten a field goal out of it and if they had scored a TD it might have put the game in their favor. They would have had all the momentum and so far they had been undefeated when scoring first. Scoring first would have been even more important in a road game and against a team that wanted to establish the run. Plus, the Falcons had kicked off to start the game so it would have been like getting the kickoff twice in the same game. It was disappointing and it definitely was an early momentum shift in the game.

Of course it quickly became a whole lot worse when Reggie Bush ran for 43 yards on the first play immediately after the pick to give the Saints 1st and goal at the 9. 2 plays later on 2nd and goal from the 5, Bush caught a short pass and ran into the end zone for a TD to give the Saints a 7-0 lead. Now I was even more concerned, as this did not look like the same Bush that had struggled in his return from injury against Tampa Bay the week before.

The Falcons went 3 and out on their next possession and the Saints looked to have possession a midfield but a holding call on Bush’s 15 yard return backed them up. They moved to their own 46 before the defense forced an incomplete pass on 3rd and 5 to force a punt. New Orleans was able to drop the punt out of bounds at the 2, pinning the Falcons just outside their own end zone. Roddy White came up big on 3rd and 11 from the 1, catching a pass from Ryan on the left side and taking the ball to the 16 for a gain of 15 and a 1st down. The Falcons would have to punt when the drive stalled at the 20 and the Saints were driving inside Atlanta territory when the quarter ended with New Orleans in control.

Second Quarter Comments: After an 18 yard gain by Thomas gave the Saints a 1st and 10 at the Falcon 28, Chevis Jackson appeared to intercept a tipped pass and return it to the 35. The Saints challenged and I was not very confident that the play would stand. It didn’t stand and New Orleans got a 1st down inside the Atlanta red zone 2 plays later. The Saints were running all over the Falcons defense but on 3rd and 1 from the 8, the Falcons stopped Deuce McAllister for no gain, bringing up 4th and 1. I thought for sure the Saints would go for it but they decide to take the field goal to make it 10-0. That was twice now that the Falcons had held on 3rd and 1 and I thought it kept the Falcons right in the game if they could do something on their next possession.

The Falcons did do something on the first play of their next possession. From the Atlanta 28, Ryan rolled to his right and threw on the run, chucking a ball up for White and Roddy pulled the ball down and took it all the way to the New Orleans 15 yard line for a 59 yard gain. 3 plays later, Turner trudged into the end zone on 1st and goal from 5 yards out to bring the score to 10-7 with just under 10 minutes left in the half. I had been getting a little concerned over the last 15 minutes of play but I was now confident again that we would win this game.

The Saints marched down the field steadily on their next possession, now bringing out the great passing attack that is their backbone. On 3rd and 10 from the Falcon 27, it looked like Drew Brees had passed the Saints to a 1st and goal at the 7, but they were called for holding and instead had a 3rd and 20 from the 37. This was huge. They ended up kicking a 46 yard field goal to make it 13-7 with a little over 6 minutes left in the half. The Falcons answered with an equally steady drive and they finished the drive off. Ryan was now red hot and he passed the Falcons to a 1st and goal at the 3. But after a run for 1 yard by Turner and an incomplete pass, the Falcons had a 3rd and goal from the 2. Ryan threw a fade to the right side for Brian Finneran and Finn made an unbelievable catch for the TD. The Saints challenged to no avail, and the Falcons now had the lead, 14-13, with just 2:13 left in the half and no timeouts remaining for New Orleans. Michael Koenen kicked a touchback but the Saints were able to move down field quickly. The Falcons kept them out of the end zone but they were able to kick a field goal on the final play of the half to retake the lead, 16-14.

Third Quarter Comments: It was disappointing that the Saints had been able to score so easily at the end of the half because with the Falcons getting the ball first in the 2nd half they would have had a chance to go up by 8 with a TD. Still, I felt good about their chances and I thought they would win the game. But a fumbled snap on the 2nd play of the Falcons’ first possession in the 3rd quarter ruined the drive and led to a 3 and out. Thankfully, a holding penalty on the Saints punt return backed them up to the 13 and the Atlanta defense was able to match the 3 and out and get the ball right back to the offense. It was during their next drive that the Falcons shined their brightest in this game. On 2nd and 10 from their own 26, Norwood went around the end for 8 yards to the 34 but a holding call on Michael Jenkins nullified the run and made it 2nd and 14 at the 22. On 3rd and 11 from the 25, Ryan fired deep left to Roddy White for a gain of 18 to the 43, but a hold on Jason Blalock canceled out the first down and made it 3rd and 21 from the 15. Matty took the shotgun snap, step up in the pocket and fired deep down the middle of the field to White who made the catch for a gain of 26 and a 1st down at the 41. On 3rd and 5 from the 46, Ryan hit Finneran for a gain of 6 and a 1st down in Saints territory. The Saints then came after Ryan on the next play and while back peddling he fired down the middle of the field to Jenkins who made a great catch for 21 yards and another 1st down at the 27. On 3rd and 6 from the 23, Matty found White over the middle and Roddy took it all the way to the 9 for a gain of 14, setting up 1st and goal. Unfortunately, the Falcons couldn’t pound it in from there and had to settle for a field goal that gave them a 1 point lead again. Not being able to get into the end zone was the only negative to a 15 play, 69 yard drive that took up 9 minutes and 15 seconds of clock and featured 3 3rd down conversions. The Saints offense had already reached Falcons territory as the quarter ended with Atlanta winning 17-16.

Fourth Quarter Comments: Though the Falcons led by just 1 point and were having trouble stopping the New Orleans offense, going to the 4th quarter I still felt that they would be the winners when all was said and done. The final quarter began with a key play. The Saints faced a 3rd and 9 from the Atlanta 49 yard line. Brees had time and found Devery Henderson open on the right side and Henderson made the catch for first down and much more, going all the way to the 13 before going out of bounds after a gain of 36. A few plays later Thomas took a screen pass on 2nd and goal from the 7 and made it into the end zone to put New Orleans back on top, 22-17. The Saints went for 2 and gave the ball to Reggie Bush on a handoff up the middle. Bush hit the line and looked to have enough momentum to cross over the goal line but just as he hit the goal line he fumbled into the end zone and the Falcons recovered. The officials ruled it as a failed conversion and the Saints didn’t challenge, leaving it a 5 point game.

The Falcons had to answer and they did, marching down the field in their most efficient drive of the game. On 3rd and 4 from the 12, Ryan dropped back and found no one immediately open and decided to take off running down the right side. He picked up the first down easily and ended up going all the way to the end zone for a 12 yard scramble for a TD to put the Falcons back on top, 23-22. The Falcons went for 2 to make it a field goal game. On the try, Ryan took the snap under center and turned his back to the defense with Norwood in the backfield moving left as if to go out for a pitch. Ryan “bobbled” the ball and then rolled to his right and threw to Jenks in the end zone for the conversion to make it 25-22. On the replay, it appeared that Matty intentionally bobbled the ball, tossing it in the air, bringing his hands up to the side to make the defense think he had pitched, and then catching it and rolling out and throwing. They call him Matty Ice for a reason, you know.

There was still 7:51 left in the game and the Falcons hadn’t stopped the Saints offense in a while, so you figured the score wouldn’t end this way. But I was hoping that we would at least hold them to a field goal try. Obviously, getting a good kickoff and keeping the Saints from having good field position would probably go along way towards keeping them out of the end zone. Koenen got off another excellent kick, booting the ball 4 yards deep into the end zone. So far today, Koenen had managed a touchback on 1 of his 4 kickoffs, and on the other 3 kicks Courtney Roby had only amassed a total of 59 yards, averaging 19.7 yards a return, none longer than 23. Unfortunately, Roby had been injured on his last kick return and now Pierre Thomas was back to return the boot. He a nice move at the initial point of collision and broke it down the left sideline. Koenen couldn’t bring him down and Thomas was in the clear running across midfield but he couldn’t leave everyone in the dust. David Irons ran him down from behind at the 16 after a return of 88 yards. The idea of holding the Saints to a field goal seemed sunk but now they would at least most likely score with plenty of time for the Falcons to answer with a TD. The Saints ran Reggie Bush on the first two plays of the possession and after getting stuffed on 1st down he picked up 9 yards on 2nd down before being pushed out of bounds a yard short of the 1st down at the 7. The Falcons had had success stopping the run on 3rd and 1 a couple times earlier in the game, so this time the Saints tried something different. Brees took the snap under center with Bush in the backfield and dropped back as Bush headed out to the right flat. Michael Boley read the play all the way and shadowed Bush but Brees threw it out there anyway. He lofted it out to a spot where only Boley could make the catch and it floated down into the hands of the Falcons linebacker. For an instance it looked like the Falcons would completely negate the long kick return and would actually hold on to the lead. But Boley dropped it and it went as just an incompletion. It wasn’t an easy catch and Boley had made a beautiful play just to be in that position, but it was definitely a play he could have made. It wouldn’t have been as big of a deal if the Saints had decided to kick the field goal to tie the game, but I kind of figured that wouldn’t happen here. The offense lined up to go for it on 4th and 1 from the 7 and the Saints gave the ball to Mike Karney up the middle. He was hit at the line but he was able to fall forward and it was clear fairly quickly that they had picked it up. The refs called it a 1st down but the Falcons challenged. While I can understand why the Falcons would have desperately wanted the call to be reversed, I don’t think this was a wise call. On this time of play, where it’s a run up the middle into a pile, there’s just not going to be much evidence on camera to support a reversal of the call. And it wasn’t like the Saints had far to go to get the first down. The officials upheld the call, in fact they said that Karney had gained 2 yards to the 5, and the Falcons were now down to 2 timeouts. On the next play, Thomas went around the left end and just made it over the goal line before going down for a TD to put the Saints back up, 29-25, with 5:47 left on the clock.

The Falcons would have to score a touchdown, but they had plenty of time to do so. They started the drive at the 20 and it began with disaster, as Turner was thrown for a 5 yard loss on 1st down. But Ryan came right back and found Jenkins to the right and Jenks got the ball across the 30 for a gain of 15 and a first down. Jenkins caught a ball for 7 on the next play to make it 2nd and 3 from the 37. The Falcons then called a QB draw from the shotgun but Ryan was stopped short of the line of scrimmage for a 2 yard loss. That made it 3rd and 5 from the 35 with less than 4 minutes to go. On 3rd down, Ryan fired deep down the left side for Finn but missed him to stop the clock with 3:23 on the clock. It was now 4th and 5 at the 35 yard line. The Falcons now faced a choice. They could punt the ball to New Orleans and try and stop the Saints and get the ball back and then go down and score a TD; or they could go for it on 4th and 5. The Falcons had 2 timeouts left plus the 2-minute warning. Normally you would most likely punt the ball and play the percentages. However, the Falcons defense had not stopped the Saints lately. New Orleans had scored on 5 of their last 6 possessions. The Falcons had had much more success getting gains of 5 yards or more offensively than stopping the Saints running attack. Another thing to think about was the consequences of going for it and not making it. Say the Saints got the ball at the 35. The game wouldn’t be over. The defense would have a chance to hold the Saints to a field goal and even if the Saints got a field goal the Falcons would still be just a TD away from tying it. The Saints would have to get 35 yards in order to score a TD and put the game away, but even if the Falcons punted the ball, if the Saints gained 35 yards they were going to win the game. I think the smart call here would be to go for it but the Falcons decided to punt. I knew it was a decision that Coach Smith was likely to catch a lot of shit for.

Koenen got off an excellent punt and Bush made a fair catch at the 13 with 3:15 remaining in the game. You expected the Saints to run the ball but they went to the air on 1st down and Brees threw to Jeremy Shockey for a gain of 10 and a 1st down at the 23. They ran the clock all the way down to 2:30 and then Thomas carried the ball over right tackle for a 9 yard gain and the clock ran to the 2-minute warning. It would have been better if had just picked up another first down because it was highly unlikely that the Falcons would stop them from gaining 1 more yard on the next 2 plays. Thomas ran for 3 yards to pick up the 1st down and the Falcons called their 2nd timeout with 1:55 on the clock. Thomas picked up 2 yards on 1st down and the Falcons called their final timeout to stop the clock with 1:51 left. On 2nd and 8, Thomas ran for 5 yards to the 42. There was only 1:07 left when the Saints snapped the ball on 3rd and 3, so even if the Falcons had stopped Thomas short of the first down they would have had almost no chance of doing anything after the punt. Thomas made it academic by picking up the first down on a 4 yard run to put the final nail in the Atlanta coffin. Brees kneeled the ball and the clock ran out with the Falcons on the wrong end of a 29-25 score.

Numbers: In the first meeting between these teams in 2008, the numbers were almost irrelevant. This time the states were much more indicative of the action. The two teams both amassed 414 yards of offense, with the Falcons making 22 first downs and the Saints making 24. Atlanta went 7 for 12 on 3rd down and held the Saints to 4 for 10 on 3rd down but New Orleans was 1 for 1 on 4th down and the Falcons were 0 for 0 on 4th down and that made the difference. In the first game, the Saints greatly outpassed Atlanta and it didn’t matter. In this meeting, the Falcons outpassed New Orleans by 85 yards, 315-230, but it didn’t matter because the Saints outrushed the Falcons by 85 yards, 184-99. The Falcons ran 30 times for 99 yards, averaging just 3.3 yards an attempt. New Orleans rushed 30 times for 184 yards, averaging 6.1 yards a pop. The Falcons had the ball for about 6 more minutes but they committed the game’s only turnover. Neither team got a sack. Matt Ryan had a great game save for the one mistake. He completed 24 of 33 passes for 315 yards, 1 TD, and 1 costly pick. He also had a 12 yard TD scramble. Michael Turner gained just 61 yards on 18 carries, averaging 3.4 yards a rush, and scoring 1 TD. Roddy White had another brilliant game, grabbing 10 passes for 64 yards. Michael Jenkins hauled in 5 passes for 69 yards. Jason Elam was good on his only FG try and Michael Koenen averaged 47.5 yards on 4 punts and put one inside the 20. Drew Brees completed just 18 of 32 passes for 230 yards, but he threw 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Henderson caught 3 passes for 72 yards and Jeremy Shockey caught 5 for 64. The two biggest stars for the Saints were Thomas and Bush. Thomas ran 16 times for 102 yards and a TD, averaging 6.4 yards a carry. He also had a 7 yard TD reception and an 88 yard kick return. Bush ran for 80 yards on 10 carries, averaging 8 yards a carry, and he caught 3 passes for 26 yards and a TD. The Saints had an excellent day on special teams, as Garrett Hartley was 3 for 3 on FG tries and Glen Pakulak averaged 50.7 yards on 3 punts and put 1 inside the 20.

Final Comment: The worst part about this loss was that it was a game that you felt like the Falcons could have won, and there was that sense that they didn’t give themselves a chance at the end when they punted. I understand that you usually put it in the hands of the defense, but in this situation it would have made more sense to put it in the hands of Matt Ryan. With the loss, the Falcons fell to 8-5 on the season. The Falcons’ chances to win the division took a major hit with the loss, as they would now be a game behind the loser of the Tampa-Carolina MNF game, and 2 games back of the winner. It would be harder to make the playoffs as a wildcard because there would be more teams competing. The simplest route was to win the division but that now appeared unlikely.

Week 15: vs. Tampa Bay, Win, 13-10 (OT).

General Comments: Even though the Falcons were coming off of a disappointing loss at New Orleans, I felt pretty good about their chances against the Bucs at home. Home teams had dominated things in the NFC South. The Bucs defense had been exposed by the Panthers on the previous Monday night and they would be playing on short rest. Jeff Garcia was banged up and the Bucs had no real explosive weapons on offense. Earnest Graham was done for the year and I did not think the Bucs would be able to run on us with Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams. I was confident that the Falcons would be able to run on Tampa. In the first game between these two teams back in week 2, the Bucs had beaten the Falcons worse than any team all year, but things would be different this time. Matt Ryan had been playing in just his 2nd NFL game and his first ever road game and this one would be at home. I felt like this was the biggest game this franchise had played in a long time. If they won they would clinch a winning season and stay in the discussion for a playoff spot. If they lost they would not be eliminated from the postseason but realistically making the playoffs would be unlikely if they didn’t beat Tampa today.

By game time on Sunday I was feeling really confident about the Falcons’ chances of winning this game. Apparently I wasn’t the only one, as the Falcons were now favored by 5.5 points. It was announced that Jeff Garcia would not play in the game, something I had not considered at all likely. I was much less scared of Brian Griese than Garcia, although Griese had been the starter when the Bucs beat the Falcons in week 2. But I thought Griese would be much more likely to turn the ball over, an most importantly, he would not be able to escape pressure the way that Garcia could. Things were looking good.

I think I was right to feel confident. Early on it looked like the Falcons were going to win handedly. But if you make mistakes and don’t take advantage of opportunities in the NFL you are asking for trouble. Against a team with pride and heart like the Bucs you are going to be in for a battle if you keep them in the game. And that’s what happened. There were a few moments where I thought it was going to end badly and it was going to do irreparable damage to the storybook season. But there was a happy ending after all. When the Falcons won it I was more excited than at any point in this season other than the end of the Bears game. There have been many big wins this year but this was perhaps the greatest of all. This win showed that the franchise had made a full transition from perennial loser, under achiever, disappointer, sufferer, to winner. This was a different sort of team. Rarely has such a team as this represented the city of Atlanta. This win was a testament to the fact that these were Falcons of a different feather.

1st Quarter Comments: I definitely liked the strategy of coming out and running on 3 straight plays but it was disappointing to be stopped on 3rd and 2 and have the first possession end after a 3 and out. The Bucs made the first mistake and they made mistakes throughout the game. A personal foul penalty on the punt backed the Bucs up and 2 more penalties on their first possession helped derail their first drive. As a result the Falcons got the ball right back in great field position, with Harry Douglas taking the ball to the TB 34. A false start left the Falcons with a 3 and 10 at the 34, but like he has all year Matt Ryan stood tall on 3rd and long, throwing to Michael Jenkins down the middle at the 11 for a gain of 23. The Falcons got stuck at the 8 and had to settle for a 26 yard field goal by Jason Elam to take a 3-0 lead with 6:50 left in the 1st quarter.

It was disappointing that the Falcons couldn’t get the touchdown but at least they had grabbed the first lead which had been a very good sign for them so far this year. Tampa’s next drive stalled went Griese threw incomplete on 3rd and 3 from the Tampa 43. The Falcs got the ball back and started moving again. Ryan fired a bullet to Roddy White, who went up high and grabbed it and came down at the Tampa 42 for a gain of 30. Ryan threw a 6 yard completion to MJ on 3rd and 2 from the 34 for a 1st down at the 28. Michael Turner then broke off his first nice run of the game, picking up 18 yards and taking the ball to the 10. On 2nd and goal from the 8, Ryan dumped a pass off to Jerious Norwood on the right side and he made some brilliant moves to take the ball to the 1. On the next play, Turner banged in from 1 yard out to put the Falcons up 10-0 with 1:01 left in the opening quarter. It was going to be a good day. The Falcons were in complete control, and if they kept the pressure on they should be able to rule the entire game.

Things continued to go well on the ensuing kickoff. The Bucs were making things hard on themselves. A penalty on the return backed the Bucs up to the 12. But it was at this point that Griese seemed to find a rhythm. He hadn’t played in months and it may be that he just needed some time to warm back up. He completed passes for gains of 20 and 27 yards on consecutive plays, but as the 1st quarter ended you had to be happy and confident with a 10-0 lead.

2nd Quarter Comments: Big John Abraham came up huge early in the 2nd with the Bucs facing a 3rd and 10 from the Falcon 41. He sacked Griese at the 50 for a 9 yard loss. The teams traded punts and another penalty took the ball from the Falcons 43 back to the Bucs 41. Tampa hurt themselves again when a false start turned a 3rd and 2 from their 49 into a 3rd and 7. The Bucs had to throw and Griese threw incomplete and the Falcons got the ball back at their 20. Matty hit MJ for 26 and then Turner took a pass for 18 yards. The Falcons were rolling, up 10-0, inside Tampa territory again. But then on 2nd and 8 from the Tampa 34 with 8:32 left in the half, Matty got a little greedy. He threw deep down the left sideline for Roddy White who was being single covered by Aqib Talib. It looked like a nice ball, but Talib intercepted at the goal line. I would have to say that it was both a great play by Talib and a mistake by Ryan. You can see why Ryan would want to make the throw when his best weapon is in single coverage with a step on his man inside the 10 yard line. But with an athletic, opportunistic corner like Talib in coverage, it probably would do to try and make a perfect throw. It would have been better to lead White and put the ball where only he could catch. It might have raised the chances of overthrowing him but it would have lowered the chances of turning the ball over. Also, Talib may have baited Ryan into making the throw. Maybe to say that Talib did it intentionally is to give him too much credit, but it still might be that Ryan underestimated how quickly Talib could close the gap that there was between himself and White. I don’t think you can say he tried to force it or throw it up for grabs, he thought White was open and Talib was beat. But that wasn’t the case.

Fortunately Talib was ruled down at the 1 so it was a bit like a punt. But the Falcons were not able to add to their lead, despite moving the ball inside the Tampa 35. The Bucs got the ball out from their end zone but on 3rd and 5 from the 40 Antonio Bryant caught a pass and was stopped a yard shy of the 1st down. The Falcons got the ball back with time running down in the half and on 3rd and 1 from the 28 Ryan ran a play with a nifty pitch fake and then threw back to the left flat to Norwood who was wide open. J-No gained 17 yards on the play. Moments later the Falcons had a 3rd and 5 at midfield with 1:23 left before halftime. Again the Falcons had a chance to add to their lead but they were hurt by another turnover. If Ryan was too greedy on the first INT he was too careless this time, running up towards the line of scrimmage and then throwing hastily to White who was crossing from right to left. Ronde Barber was on his hip and he intercepted the pass fairly easily at the 35 and went out at the 33 to give the Bucs the ball back with 1:15 left in the half. Not only would the Falcons not add to their lead, the Bucs would now have another chance to get points before halftime. With Tampa set to get the ball first in the 2nd half, I thought it was important to protect against them getting on the board late in this half and not worth forcing the issue to try and add to the lead. Griese went right to Bryant for 14 yards and then threw to Mark Clayton for 20 more. The Bucs took a timeout at the Atlanta 33 with 33 seconds left. Bryant caught a 30 yard bomb deep down the left sideline at the 3 but the Falcons got a break when the play was reversed after replay. Then another penalty left the Bucs with a 3rd and 9 at the 32 with only 23 seconds left. But Griese got the ball to Bryant for 12 yards and a 1st down at the 20. They took their last timeout with just 15 seconds left. It looked like the Falcons still had a pretty good shot at holding the Bucs to a field goal, but for some reason the Falcons DB’s were playing really far off of Antonio Bryant, and on the next play Griese threw a strike to him over the middle and he made the catch at the front of the end zone for a TD with 11 seconds left on the clock.

So the half ended with the Bucs back in the game. It was a disturbing way to end a half when it seemed like the Falcons were on the verge of going up big and taking complete control. I was quite pissed because I had to sit through halftime with my stomach in knots, worrying that we had blown our chances, let the Bucs back in the game, and would be haunted by it. I didn’t really think it would happen but I was deathly afraid of such a scenario.

3rd Quarter Comments: The Bucs got the ball first in the 3rd quarter and because of their late TD before halftime they were in position to tie the game with a FG or take the lead with a TD. The Falcon D came up big on 3rd and 3 from the TB 30 to stop the drive and force a punt. Grady Jackson brought Griese down at the 20 for a sack and a 10 yard loss. The Falcons got the ball back and now Atlanta moved into TB territory and looked to push the lead back to 2 scores again. On 2nd and 4 from the 27, Ryan got good protection and found reserve tight end Jason Rader running open down the right side. Matty laid the ball out for him with perfect touch and Rader made the catch in stride and rumbled towards the end zone. As Rader tumbled into the end zone he was stripped from behind by Jermaine Phillips. Phillip Buchanon recovered the ball in the end zone but the official signaled touchdown. I knew right away what was going to happen. For some reason I knew for sure that the ball had come out before he crossed the plain and I knew that the rule was that if a fumble was clearly recovered by one team it didn’t matter if the play was ruled dead incorrectly. The play went to replay. There was some hope that the official would rule that it was not conclusive enough to overturn the ruling on the field but he didn’t do it. It went from touchdown to touchback. Instead of going up 17-7, the Falcons were still only ahead by 3 and the momentum swung back to Tampa.

Tampa quickly moved the ball to midfield and it looked like they were headed for a score. The Atlanta defense needed to make a big play and they came up with one here. Earlier in the game, Brian Baldinger had made the comment on the air that Brian Griese was a QB who would take care of the ball. Baldinger is one of the more knowledgeable football analysts on TV in my opinion, but this wasn’t his best work. Brian Griese is the exact opposite of a guy who will take care of the ball. I was counting on Griese making a mistake at some point, and he did now. On 1st and 10 from the Tampa 49, Griese chose poorly and fired a pass that was picked off by Domonique Foxworth at the 37. Now I thought we had to take advantage of it and go back on top by 2 scores. But the Falcons couldn’t do anything offensively. On 3rd and 9 from the 50, Matty dropped back to throw and was sacked at the 42. He actually lost the ball as he was falling to the ground but he was able to fall right back on it. Michael Koenen got off a good punt to force the Bucs to start their next drive at their 10. The Atlanta defense forced a punt but a hold on the return made the Falcons start out their next possession at the 8. Suddenly it seemed that the Tampa defense might be wearing down the way they had late in the game the week before, as Turner ran for 10 to the 18, then went for 22 on 2nd and 8 from the 20 to take the ball to the 42. The 3rd quarter ended with the Falcons still clinging to a 10-7 lead.

4th Quarter Comments: The 4th quarter started like the 3rd had ended, with Turner catching a pass and gaining 12 yards for a 1st down at the Tampa 46. But Ryan threw incomplete on 3rd and 9 from the 45 and the Falcons had to give it back to Tampa. Koenen pinned the Bucs again, this time at the 11, and the defense held, stopping the Bucs on 3rd and 6 from their 45 to force a punt. The Falcons began their next drive at their own 14 and this possession began with high hopes, as Turner gained 9 yards on the ground to the 23. But on 2nd and 1 he was dropped for a loss of 2, and on 3rd and 3 Matty threw incomplete and Atlanta had to give it back to the Bucs again. The Bucs moved from their own 38 to the Atlanta 30 where they had a 3 and 1. But once again they were killed by a false start. On 3rd and 6 they had to pass and Griese threw incomplete. That left a 53 yard kick for Matt Bryant. This would have tied the score but the kick was wide left and the Falcons took over with their lead intact and 3:38 on the clock.

I hoped that this would be as close as it got and that we would be able to get some first downs and run the clock down. However, I did not think we should just run it 3 times because I didn’t want to leave it all up to the defense. We needed to be aggressive and take this game, not sit back and try and survive. The Falcons did try and pass on 1st down but the Bucs weren’t fooled and Matty ended up running out of bounds after a 2 yard gain at the 45. The real problem with this was that it stopped the clock. After a gain of 1 by Turner, the Falcons ran the clock down and called a timeout to come up with a play for 3rd and 7 from the Atlanta 46. It didn’t work, as Ryan threw incomplete for Norwood to bring up a punting situation with 2:37 left in the game. The Bucs still had all of their timeouts left but the defense might be able to hold Tampa again, and if Koenen got off another good punt the Bucs would at least have to go a long way to score a TD and take the lead. But then that thing that you can’t allow to happen happened. The Bucs came out and set up for a return but Brian Clark got around the outside and got his hand on the punt. Sabby Piscitelli picked up the ball in the middle of the field at the 40 yard line and tried to return it to the Atlanta end zone. A play that should be recognized here is the attempt that Koenen made to take Piscitelli. Piscitelli’s only chance to take it to the house was to run past Koenen and Koenen dove and tried to wrap him up. Piscitelli spun and slipped out of his grasp and continued moving towards the end zone before being tackled at the 22 after a return of 18 yards. Koenen didn’t make the tackle but he slowed Piscitelli down enough for the other Falcons to catch him from behind. This was huge. Disaster had struck but I was clinging to a hope that the defense could manage to hold the Bucs to a field goal. This seemed unlikely after Griese threw to Clayton on the 1st play for a gain of 10 to take the ball to the 12. That brought up the 2 minute warning, and to be honest I was thinking that it might be fortuitous if the Bucs would just score on this next play because then at least there would be some time to come back. Williams ran for a gain of 3 to the 9 on the next play and the Falcons called their 2nd timeout with 1:56 on the clock. On 2nd and 7 from the 9, Griese dropped back to throw and John Abraham came up with one of the biggest plays of the game, pulling Griese down for a sack all the way back at the 20 yard line. The Falcons took their final timeout with 1:44 on the clock. Now there was a chance, a good chance in fact, that he Falcons would be able to hold Tampa to a field goal try. For Griese to allow himself to take be sacked for an 11 yard loss in that situation is horrible but it was also a stellar play by Abraham. On 3rd and 18 from the 20, Dunn ran to the 15 yard line and the Bucs were called for holding. The Falcons chose to take the penalty and back Tampa up to the 30. On 3rd and 28, Dunn got the handoff again and this time he picked up 10 yards before going down at the 20. The Bucs ran the clock down to 48 seconds and called a timeout. For Bryant it would be a 37 yard field goal try to tie it. He had missed earlier but that was from 53 yards. I knew he almost certainly wouldn’t miss this but it ended up being pretty close. He snuck it through, however, to tie the game at 10-10 with 44 seconds left.

I had mixed emotions. On the one hand I was morning the loss of the lead and the fact that we had come that close to hanging on and now would have to win it some other way. On the other hand, I was relieved that Tampa hadn’t taken the lead. I kind of wanted the Falcons to take some shots down the field but they ended up just giving Norwood a couple of handoffs and running the clock down to send it to overtime.

Overtime Comments: Now came that awful moment when you have to leave it all up to a 50-50 chance. The Falcons lost the coin toss and that defense that had been hanging on for dear life would now have to go back out on the field again. I got a little more hopeful when another penalty on the Bucs during the kickoff forced them to start at the 7 instead of the 21. But Dunn ran for 5 on 1st down and then Williams gained 12 to give the Bucs a 1st down at the 24. On 2nd and 8 from the 26, Dunn caught a pass and took it 9 yards to the 35 for another 1st down. It seemed inevitable. There was nothing to stop what was happening. The Falcon defense was worn out, the Bucs would be able to move the ball in these chunks by either running or throwing short and then they would kick a field goal and take the game. The Falcons topped Williams for a gain of 2 on 1st down and then on 2nd and 8 Griese threw for Williams incomplete. At least now the Falcons had a chance, as it would be a 3rd and long. On 3rd and 8 from the 37, with the Falcons in need of 1 more big play, Big John Abraham came through again, sacking Griese all the way back at the 24 for a 13 yard loss to bring up 4th down. The offense would get a shot.

The Atlanta possession began at their own 29. On 1st down, the receivers were covered and Ryan scrambled for a pickup of 9 yards. Turner gained 3 for a 1st down at the 41. Then Matty hit White for 14 yards and a 1st down inside Bucs territory at the 45. We needed just a few more 1st downs to get in comfortable Elam range. On 2nd and 8 from the 43, Ryan decided to run again and as he went down at the 39 he had the ball knocked out of his hand. All of our hearts dropped but somehow Tampa didn’t recover it and Justin Blalock fell on it at the 38. Disaster had been avoided. We needed one more big play. On 3rd and 3 from the 38, Ryan ran for it again and he got enough for the 1st down at the 35. On 2nd and 10 from the 35, the Falcons gave it to Turner and he burst through the tired, aging, beaten down Bucs defense, taking it 17 yards to the 18. Turner ran for 3 more to take it to the 15. I was for kicking it now. Jason Elam from 32 yards out in a dome is safe enough to stop right now and kick it and end this thing. But the Falcons decided to run again with Turner and he took the ball down to the 11, but the refs threw a flag and I knew right away that it was on us. It was illegal hands to the face on Blalock and the ball was moved back to the 25. Now it was a 42 yard field goal and the Falcons would have to try and gain some of those yards back. I’m sure I’m not the only Falcons fan who thought back to a game played between these two teams a few years earlier under similar circumstances. In week 16 of the 2005 season, the 8-6 Falcons were locked up in a tight battle with the 9-5 Bucs in Tampa Bay. It was a back and forth, crazy, frantic game that wound up going into overtime. When the game didn’t end right away, coach Jim Mora decided he needed to know whether a tie would eliminate the Falcons from the playoffs, so he made a call on a cell phone from the sidelines. Thinking back on it while watching this game, I realized that that was the moment the Jim Mora era stopped being one characterized as a new day in franchise history, of a hope for a change in culture, of winning, and of being a team respected, and became just another sad, embarrassing, chapter in the history of a franchise that has often been the laughing stock of the League during its existence. Sooner or later, the Falcons always turned back into the Falcons. They had been unable to get that 9th win and clinch a winning record. That game had ended with the Bucs winning on a field goal after the Falcons allowed something to go wrong every time they had a chance to win it. I was hoping to today’s ending would be different. On 2nd and 17 from the 25, Turner got the ball and ran through the Tampa defense for 9 yards to the 16. Thankfully, the Falcons sent the kicking team out now. I just wanted to get this thing over with. The Bucs called a timeout to freeze Elam as expected. I’ll tell you what was going through my mind at this moment. I was thinking back to that 2005 game again. There was a moment in that game when it looked like the Falcons had it won. The Bucs had won the overtime coin flip but then they fumbled the kickoff and the Falcons recovered. They had a 28 yard field goal try to win the game. But in typical Falcon fashion, they allowed it to be blocked and they of course went on to lose the game and were eliminated from the playoff chase. That’s how it has always seemed to go for this franchise. But again, this team has shown to be different. Elam lined up, the snap and hold were fine, and he kicked it up there. It wasn’t right down the middle, but it was true, and there were no flags. The Falcons had survived, scrapped, hung on, outfought, and won it, 13-10 in overtime. I was relieved but also elated. I was so glad to be a Falcons fan.

Numbers: As you would expect in a 13-10 overtime game, the stats from this one were quite even. The Falcons outgained the Bucs by 48 yards, 373-325, but the Bucs gained 1 more 1st down (19-18). The Falcons were 6 for 14 on 3rd down and the defense held the Bucs to just 3 of 14 on 3rd down conversions. The Falcons outgained the Bucs by 76 yards on the ground, 175-99. Tampa rushed 26 times, averaging 3.8 yards a carry, while the Falcons ran 43 times and averaged 4.1 yards a carry. The Falcons won the game despite a 3-1 disadvantage in the turnover department. A big reason for the Atlanta win was their 4-1 edge in sacks. Also important was the difference in penalties. The Falcons committed only 3 for 20 yards. The Bucs committed 11 for 76 yards. The Falcons shutout the Bucs, 10-0, in the 1st quarter but Tampa held the Falcons scoreless over the final 3 quarters of regulation.

Matt Ryan didn’t have his best game but he got the job done. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 206 yards, no TD’s, and 2 interceptions. He was sacked once and he fumbled twice but didn’t lose either. He did pick up some key yards with his legs, running 6 times for 19 yards. Michael Turner carried the ball 32 times and rushed for 152 yards and a TD, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He also caught 2 passes for 30 yards. Roddy White caught 4 passes for 61 yards and Michael Jenkins made 3 catches for 55 yards. Big John Abraham had 3 sacks in the game. Jason Elam was 2 for 2 on FG tries and Michael Koenen had a punt blocked but it wasn’t his fault and he pinned 2 punts inside the 20. Brian Griese threw 37 times for Tampa, completing 26 passes for 269 yards, throwing 1 TD and 1 pick. He took 4 sacks. Cadillac Williams carried 14 times for 59 yards, an average of 4.2 yards per rush, and Dunn ran for 40 yards on 12 carries, averaging 3.3 per carry. Dunn also caught 7 passes for 50 yards. Antonio Bryant was the Bucs’ biggest weapon, catching 8 passes for 108 yards and a TD, but he caught only 1 pass for 2 yards after halftime. Bryant was 1 for 2 on FG’s and Josh Bidwell had a huge day punting, averaging 45.9 on 9 punts and pinning 4 inside the 20.

Final Comments: This was just an enormous win for so many reasons. It was a great victory just as an isolated game. The Falcons showed they were able to beat a good team even when they weren’t playing anything close to their best and when things didn’t always go their way. They blew a 10 point lead but fought back to win in overtime. There were a number of moments where they could have gave up or gave in and lost by they overcame it all and got the win. They defended their home field and they had now done so against all 3 teams in the division. The win was huge in terms of their playoff chances. The victory pulled them even with the Bucs in 2nd place in the NFC South and kept them at least alive for the division title, 2 games back of Carolina. They were very much in the thick of things for the Wild Card in the NFC if things didn’t work out in the division. Most importantly in my opinion, this win was their 9th, guaranteeing that they would finish the season with a winning record, something that would have seemed laughable in August. They would go from Vick and Petrino and MeAngelo and the Tuna jilting and 4-12 to a winning record in the first season of the Demitroff-Smith-Ryan era. It would be the first winning season for the Falcons since 2004, just the 3rd of this decade, and only the 10th in the franchise’s 43 year history.

Week 16: @ Minnesota, Win, 24-17.

General Comments: Even after the Falcons beat the Bucs in OT in week 15 to clinch a winning record, I must admit that I did not expect them to go to Minnesota and beat the Vikings in the Metrodome. The Falcons were only 3-4 on the road so far, the Vikings were 5-1 at home and had won their last 5 home games and had won 6 of their last 7 games overall. The Vikings were good at stopping the run, they had a strong pass rush, and of course they had Adrian Peterson. Believe it or not, I actually wished that the Vikings would have decided to go back to Gus Frerotte now that he was healthy instead of sticking with Tarvaris Jackson. I knew that Jackson was someone that might make a mistake but I also knew he was a whole lot more dangerous than Frerotte. The main reason was that Frerotte wasn’t going anywhere once he dropped back. With Jackson at QB, even if the Falcons did get pressure he might turn it against them by taking off. And over the course of the year it had become clear that Frerotte was prone to turning the ball over too. I did not think facing Jackson was a break for the Falcons the way that facing Griese had been the week before. The Vikings would be trying to clinch the NFC North Division Title with a win. The Falcons were 3 point underdogs at Minnesota and to be honest I thought that the Vikings would probably cover. This was a thing that was causing me great disconcertment, as I had come to the believe that the Falcons really needed to win out in order to have any kind of shot at making the playoffs.

I definitely felt a little bit better about our chances to win the game when I learned that Pat Williams had broken his shoulder in week 15 and would be out for this week’s game. Things just kept going our way throughout the week and it never stopped. On Saturday night, the Cowboys lost at home to the Ravens as 5 point favorites to fall to 9-6. Then on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Bucs fell at home to the San Diego Chargers as 3.5 point underdogs to fall to 9-6. Suddenly, as the Falcons warmed up on the turf at the Metrodome they were in position to clinch—that’s right—clinch a playoff berth with a win. I was starting to get a feeling that this was going to happen.

It’s not hard to think of a number of different ways that it could have ended up going against the Falcons. When this game was over, it was really hard to say what would happen if the two teams came back to the same spot a week later and played again. The bizarre rash of mostly unforced errors by the Vikings really put the Falcons in a position where as long as they didn’t just give the game back to Minnesota they were probably going to win. There were a lot of things that went in the Falcons favor, but no member of this franchise or its fan base gave half of a whatchamacallit how or why they got the win. All that mattered was that they won and they were going to the playoffs. Playoffs??!!! Yep. And they got there by doing just what they had done all year, exceeding expectations, achieving things you wouldn’t think they could achieve, and doing what it took to win. That is this team’s greatest trait: they’re just winners.

1st Quarter Comments: The game couldn’t have started much better for the Falcons, as my confidence continued to rise. The Falcons offense looked balanced and on point during their first drive, as they marched 74 yards on 12 plays while taking 6 minutes and 13 seconds off the clock. Matty Ryan drew a pair of offsides penalties from the Vikes and on 3rd and 2 from the Minnesota 34 Jason Snelling got the carry and ran left for 8 yards and a first down at the 26. Ryan hit Michael Jenkins on a 12 yard strike to the goal line and then on 1st and goal from the 1 Michael Turner banged into the end zone to put the Falcons ahead 7-0. Scoring first had been a recipe for success so often this year for the Falcons and it would be even more important to do so on the road. Indeed, the Viking crowd was taken out of the game immediately by the Falcons strong opening drive.

Things continued to go swimmingly for the Falcs on the kickoff to Minnesota, as Chester Taylor only made it out to the 10 yard line to force the Vikings to start off with awful field position. But the Vikings quickly got themselves going behind strong running by Adrian Peterson. And I could see right away that Tarvaris Jackson was a different QB than he was at the end of last year and the start of this year. The Vikings answered Atlanta’s drive and then some, going 90 yards on 12 plays over 6 minutes and 47 seconds to tie the game and get their crowd right back in it. Jackson threw to convert a 3rd and 8, Chester Taylor ran to convert a 3rd and 2, and then Jackson threw a beautiful pass to Bobby Wade for 20 yards and a 1st down at the Atlanta 21. On the next play Jackson went to Visanthe Shiancoe and the tight end rumbled down the right side and stretched the ball over the goal line for the TD. So we were in for a battle after all.

On the ensuing kickoff, Jerious Norwood returned the ball 35 yards to give the Falcons good field position at their 38, but the offense went 3 and out and had to punt on 4th and 4 from their 44. I was now a little bit worried because the Vikings had answered Atlanta’s scoring drive with an even more impressive drive of their own, they had their home crowd behind them, and now they were getting the ball back and seemed to be gaining control of the game. Michael Koenen was unable to get one of his usual high spiraling punts, sending one that was a little bit off the side of his foot and Bernard Berrian had a chance to try and return it at the 22, but this actually turned out to be a blessing. Berrian muffed the punt and Michael Boley recovered for Atlanta at the 22. The Vikings had seemed on the verge of grabbing hold of this game, but they had committed the game’s first turnover instead, and now the Falcons were in scoring position and the crowd was taken out of the game again. Michael Turner ran for a gain of 9 to take the ball to the 13 on the final play of the 1st quarter and the Falcons were threatening to retake the lead.

2nd Quarter Comments: Turner banged for 5 yards on 3rd and 1 to give the Falcons a 1st and goal at the 8. On 2nd and goal from the 8, Ryan took the shotgun snap and executed a beautifully designed shovel pass to Norwood perfectly. The play was wide open and Jerious took the ball into the end zone to put the Falcons back on top by 7 early in the 2nd quarter.

The Vikings started their next drive at the 22, and Jackson and AP began moving their team right down the field again. Jackson dropped a pass off to Taylor on 3rd and 3 from the 29 and he went for 11 and a 1st down at the 40. Peterson then went for 17 to take the ball into Falcon territory. Jackson threw to Shiancoe for 17 more yards. On 1st and 10 from the Atlanta 24, Peterson ran off the left end for 7 more yards and it looked like the Vikings were going to march right on into the Falcons end zone. But Lawyer Milloy ripped the ball away from AP and Chris Houston scooped it up at the 17 and returned it to the 21. The Falcons took over, still leading 14-7.

The Falcons converted on a 3rd and 4 and on a 3rd and 10 on their next possession, but the drive was derailed right after they moved into Minnesota territory when Tyson Clabo was flagged for a bullshit unnecessary roughness penalty that forced the team back to their own 38 and left them with a 2nd and 24. On 3rd and 11 the Vikings came with a blitz and knocked Ryan’s legs out from under him for a sack and a 9 yard loss back at the 42. The Vikings got the ball back at the 17 following another Koenen punt. Jackson burned the Falcons badly with his legs on 3rd and 6 from the 21, taking off and dashing up the middle for 29 yards to midfield. Then on 2nd and 8 from the Atlanta 48, Jackson went to hand the ball of to AP on a stretch play to the left, but Peterson botched the handoff at the Minnesota 47 and Chauncey Davis fell on it at the 46. The Vikings had given it to Atlanta again, losing a fumble for a 3rd straight possession.

The Falcons had been aided by the fumbles just in that it kept Minnesota from scoring, but they really needed to get some points out of this one as they started off in Minnesota territory. On 3rd and 5 from the 41, the Vikings helped out Atlanta again with a penalty that resulted in a 1st down. Ryan threw to MJ for 15 yards and 1st down at the 20. After the 2 minute warning, Turner picked up 11 to make it 1st and goal at the 9. On 3rd and goal from the 5, Norwood tried to score on a run up the middle and was stopped at the 3. The Falcons called a timeout with 7 seconds left and then Elam kicked a 22 yard field goal. The Falcons went to the locker room with a 17-7 lead after a bizarre first 30 minutes.

3rd Quarter Comments: Half way home and the Falcons had a 10 point lead. But at the same time I felt like if the Vikings ever stopped killing themselves they might be hard to stop. The Falcons had to keep putting points on the board. The Vikings got the ball first in the 2nd half and Jackson came out on fire. He threw for 21, ran for a gain of 18, threw a pass for 6 yards, and then completed a pass for 18 yards on 3rd and 4 to give the Vikings a 1st down at the Atlanta 16. Then on the next play, Jackson went back to pass and then moved forward as if to run before hesitating for a moment. Kindal Moorehead dove headlong into the backfield and knocked Jackson back at the 25. As Moorehead connected with Jackson his helmet connected squarely with the ball and sent it bounding away 10 yards in the direction of the Minnesota end zone. A wild scramble ensued, with a number of Falcons players attempting to pick the ball up. I was just hoping that somebody would fall on it to take over possession. Finally Chauncey Davis did just that, recovering the Vikings’ 4th fumble in as many possessions at the Atlanta 47 yard line. There was just an overwhelming sense that the football gods wanted the Falcons to win this game. Karma had somehow become this franchise’s best friend.

Unfortunately, the Falcons weren’t able to do anything with the turnover at all. On 3rd and 4 from the Minnesota 48, Ryan threw a little swing pass to Norwood to the left and as he went down he looked to have advanced the ball just across the first down line at the 45. However, a shitty spot left the Falcons with a 4th and a foot. If Atlanta had challenged the play I think they would have gotten the first down but those things are so shaky. The Falcons lined up to go for it on 4th and less than 1 from the 45. All they needed was a QB sneak or a handoff to a back for any gain at all and they would have had a fresh set of downs, but Justin Blalock was called for a killer false start. Blalock would make up for this gaff later. That made it 4th and a long 5 from the 50 and the Falcons had no real choice but to punt. To make matters worse, Koenen’s punt went into the end zone for a touch back to give the Vikings the ball at their 20, still down 10, with 9:13 on the clock in the 3rd quarter.

The Falcons defense came up with a much needed stop at this point and again they got help from an unforced Minnesota error. On 3rd and 9 from the Minnesota 33, Jackson lined up in the shotgun and then snap flew past him and bounded back towards the Vikings’ end zone. This time Jackson was able to fall on the ball before any Falcons could get to it but it was a loss of 22 all the way back to the 11. Minnesota’s punter got away a decent punt and Harry Douglas returned it 4 yards from the Atlanta 45 to the 49, but he didn’t need to do any more than that. The Falcons were in great position again to take a 3 score lead. On the first play of the possession, Matt Ryan fired a strike to Michael Jenkins and he made the grab for a gain of 22 down and a 1st down at the 29. Now the Falcons were at least in field goal range and a 3-point kick here would make it a 13 point game, basically meaning the Vikes would have to score 2 TD’s over the final 20 minutes in order to beat us. Two plays later the Falcons were facing a 3rd and 8 from the 27. Ryan took the snap in shotgun but then handed off to Norwood. At first this play pissed me off but then J-No eked out the 8 yards necessary for a huge 1st down at the 19. Turner banged up the middle for 13 yards on the next play to set up 1st and goal at the 6. After a 1 yard run by Turner, Ryan took the snap under center on 2nd and goal from the 5 and dropped back to the 12. With no one open and Jared Allen closing in on him from behind, Ryan decided to take off running to his left and towards the goal line. As he reached the 6 there were two defenders in front of him to either side that were primed to tackle him. His only options were to slide and make it 3rd and goal at the 4 or 3 and a half, or to keep going towards the goal line and take the hit. Ryan decided to keep going. He gave a half stutter step at the 5 and then took a very long stride and put his front foot on the 3.5. Chad Greenway was in front of Ryan and to Matty’s left and if he had just stayed with his head up and taken a straight shot at Ryan’s upper body the Falcons’ QB might have been hurt, maybe even seriously hurt. But Greenway decided to fire off at Ryan’s lower body. This obviously could have seriously hurt Ryan as well. Greenway may have been expecting Ryan to slide or duck or sit down and he wanted to make sure he still got a good lick on the QB and maybe got his helmet on the ball. But Ryan had no intentions of sliding and when Greenway shot at his knees Matty’s only option, and really the natural instinct in this case, was to leap into the air to avoid the direct hit to his knees and continue moving forward. Now, it may have been Matt’s intention to leap for the end zone before Greenway acted but I don’t think so. He was diving forward but more than that he was diving up to avoid the hit to his legs. Ryan’s momentum and the hit propelled him forward and up and he probably would have landed safely with the ball stretched out to maybe the 1 or closer if Greenway had been the only Viking to hit him. As Ryan ran to the left and towards the goal line, Ben Leber came at him from Matty’s right. Leber wasn’t that close to him at first but the half stutter step and Matty’s slowing down momentarily and then jumping in the air in response to Greenway diving at him allowed Leber close in on him. Leber stayed up to hit Ryan’s top half and when Matty jumped and pushed off of Greenway he raised his shoulders above Leber. Leber hit Matty on his right shoulder just as Ryan’s body was reaching as close to a horizontal position as it would have gotten. The second hit propelled Matty into a front flip towards the goal line. Matty was completely upside down in the air above the 1 yard line. As his instincts took over he straightened up and put his arms out to brace his fall and he let the ball fall out at the half yard line. Ryan landed on his head and his right shoulder a half yard into the end zone. Darren Sharper was standing, knees bent, a yard in the end zone and the ball rolled gently and slowly right to him and he somehow allowed the ball to go through his legs like a ground ball through the wickets of a Little Leaguer. However, after the ball got by Sharper it rolled right in between Cedric Griffin and Jimmy Kennedy. Griffin fell on the ball facing the back of the end zone with Kennedy facing him on the ground a yard deeper in the end zone. Somehow Griffin let the ball slip away from his body a little bit and at that moment Michael Jenkins dove in and kept Kennedy and Griffin apart. Justin Peele jumped on Griffin’s back a moment later and kept Griffin from bringing it back in towards his body. At that point, Justin Blalock dove over Jenks right into the middle where the ball was and engulfed it with his arms, helmet and chest. A moment later Brian Finneran dove in and covered up Blalock’s left shoulder, blocking off access to the ball from that side. Peele had the way blocked off from right in front of Blalock. The ref shot his arms in the air. Instead of disaster, it was another little miracle. Touchdown Falcons, 24-7. Looking back, can you name any plays that were more crucial to the Falcons playoff run than Blalock’s recoveries of Ryan fumble’s in OT against Tampa Bay and a week later in the end zone in Minnesota? My first thought when Ryan was flying through the air was that it would really suck if he broke his shoulder or back or something like that. When it looked like he was going to fall to the ground okay I thought it was a pretty sick play, foolish, but pretty sweet. Then when I saw the ball come out and then roll right into the lap of a mass of purple guys I almost had a heart attack because that was really the one thing that could keep the Vikings right in the game. Yes, if the Falcons had to settle for a field goal or even if they did score a TD the Vikings would still be alive for sure, but it would have taken a lot for them to win it. If they ended up getting the ball back at the 20 with the Falcons not getting anything the Vikings would have the momentum, the crowd, and would need to hold on to the ball for just 1 drive in order to make it a field goal game with a quarter to play. When the ref said touchdown, I again had the feeling that the football gods were with us, and I knew that even if the Vikings played their best the rest of the way it would be hard for them to steal this game.

Koenen booted the ball 7 yards deep on the kickoff and the Vikings took over at their own 20 with just 2:38 to go in the 3rd quarter. The Falcons were on top 24-7. On 3rd and 4 from the 36, Jackson took the shotgun snap with just 15 seconds to go in the quarter. Even if they got the first down here it would likely take things to the 4th quarter with the Falcons leading by 3 scores. But Jackson threw a quick, short pass to his left and it went incomplete, brining up 4th and 4 from the Viking 36 with 10 seconds left in the 3rd. Minnesota would have to give the ball back to us. Chris Kluwe got the punt away and Harry Douglas caught it at the Atlanta 17 with no problem and then made a nice return of 14 yards to give the Falcons the ball at the 31 as the clock hit triple zeros. The Falcons would have the ball up 17 at their own 31 with a 1st down to start the 4th quarter. At that moment, I thought this thing was pretty much over. A flag had been thrown right away on the punt but that didn’t freak me out. Not until Dave Archer (Falcons radio analyst) said in a voice of dread “Oh, gosh, I hope that wasn’t 12 men on the field for the Falcons.” That’s what it was. An inexcusable mistake in that situation. It was only a 5 yard penalty but the Vikings only needed 4 for a 1st down, and thus their drive would continue at their 40 with a 1st down at the start of the 4th quarter. The door had been left open and I had a pang of fear that the Vikings would come rushing through it and the Falcons would be unable to shut it.

4th Quarter Comments: After what seemed like a long commercial break I was hoping that the Falcons defense would come right back and stop Minnesota again to erase the mistake. But that idea was quickly snuffed out, as Jackson hit Shiancoe for a gain of 31 on the 1st play of the 4th quarter to give the Vikings a 1st down at the Atlanta 27. Now I was just hoping the defense would keep them out of the end zone but Jackson ran 13 yards for a 1st down at the 14 and then Peterson cut the distance in half with a 7 yard gain to make it 2nd and 3 from the 7. I thought it might be 4 down territory for the Vikings even though they would need 2 TD and a FG to tie. It seemed like the Vikes were going to cut it back to a 10 point lead with plenty of time left but the Atlanta defense bowed up. On 2nd and 3, Peterson was hit and stopped for no gain. On 3rd and 3 from the 7, Jackson dropped back to throw and Chauncey Davis got him back at the 11 for a sack and a loss of 4. That made it 4th and 7 from the 11 and the Vikings had to settle for the FG. Ryan Longwell kicked a 29 yard chip shot to make it a 24-10 game with 11:32 remaining.

I was really hoping the Falcons could get a first down or two, run some clock, give the defense a break, and then make Minnesota go 75 yards or so, but that didn’t happen. The Vikings were still a formidable defense against the run even without Pat Williams and now that they knew the Falcons would be running clock they stuffed the run on 1st and 2nd down. On 3rd and 12 from the 20, Ryan threw incomplete and Koenen had to punt the ball away at the 10:00 minute mark. The Vikings would take over at their own 44. Minnesota didn’t need to abandon the run but I was hoping they would. If they just dropped Jackson back to pass every play the only thing that I was worried about was that he would keep picking up 1st downs by running against a defense guarded against giving up a big play. The Vikings did decide to go strictly to the pass and Jackson didn’t hurt the Falcons with his legs and the Atlanta defense held. He threw an uncatchable pass on 1st down, then threw a short pass for a loss of 1 on 2nd down, then threw short for 4 yards on 3rd down, and on 4th and 7 from the Viking 47 with just over 8 minutes to play, the Vikings went for it. Jackson dropped back and threw deep for Bernard Berrian but he couldn’t complete it and the Falcons took over in Minnesota territory, up 14, with just 8 minutes to go.

Now all the Falcons had to do was be smart. They needed to run the ball every play and hold onto it and if they got 15 yards or more and had a FG try of less than 50 they could try and put it away. If they couldn’t move the ball then they just needed to take the time off the clock and then punt it and make Minnesota got 90 yards. The Falcons did go with simple running plays on 1st and 2nd down and Turner picked up 2 yards each time but on 2nd down the Falcons were hit with a holding penalty. That made it 2nd and 18 from their own 45. They tried to set up a short pass to Norwood on 2nd down but it backfired when it went incomplete to stop the clock. On 3rd down they ran for no gain and had to punt. Koenen eliminated a return with the kick but Minnesota’s field position wasn’t horrible, as they took over at their own 18 with just under 6 minutes to go.

Now the Falcons just had to make the Vikings work for it. They started out doing so. Jackson threw 2 passes incomplete and then the defense stopped Chester Taylor a yard shy of the 1st down on a 9 yard completion to bring up 4th and 1 from the Minnesota 27. This would take time and make the Vikings run the ball to take more time. Peterson gained 3 yards to pick up the first down as the clock ticked under 5 minutes. Everything was going well, as Jackson took the snap on 2nd and 10 from his own 30 with just 4 and a half to play, but he threw deep down the left side and Chris Houston couldn’t take a chance and committed pass interference. The ball was placed at the Atlanta 40. The defense then went back to making the Vikes earn it. On 3rd and 12 from the 42, Jackson threw to Peterson and again the defense kept it from being a 1st down, brining up 4th and 1 from the 31 after a gain of 11. Peterson picked up 2 on 4th and 1 for a 1st down at the 29 but the clock was running. Jackson finally used his legs, running for 13 and getting out of bounds to stop the clock. On 2nd and 11 from the 17, the defense yielded, allowing Jackson to fire a bullet over the middle to Shaincoe at the goal line and he made the catch while crossing into the end zone for a TD to make it a 7 point game with 2:44 to go.

Minnesota kicked a touchback. The Falcons needed just a couple of 1st downs to ice the game but the Vikings had all 3 timeouts left so we really needed to get at least 1 first down. There was just no way to run on the Vikings defense when they knew it was coming. Turner was stopped for no gain on 1st down and the Vikings called a timeout with 2:40 on the clock. There are times when I think you can’t afford to sit on the ball and make it easy for the other team and then hope that the defense will save you. At those times I’m okay with putting the ball in the air and trying to win the game rather than sitting back and trying not to lose it. But this was not one of those cases. The Falcons were leading by 7, so Minnesota would have to score a TD just to tie and they couldn’t beat us unless they went for 2. In this case, you run twice more, make them use their timeouts, and if you don’t pick up the first down then you punt it and make them go 60 yards in 2 minutes with no timeouts. You make Jackson do it the hard way. But the Falcons weren’t thinking along with me. Ryan dropped back to throw on 2nd down. He held the ball for a while which took up time but it was also dangerous. He was dropped at the 19 for a sack and a loss of 1. He managed to hold on to the ball and the Vikings called their 2nd timeout with 2:26 left. It was now clear that the defense was going to have to win the came. On 3rd and 11 I was expecting a run into the line and hoping for no fumble. I wasn’t even thinking about anything else but again the Falcons were. Ryan took the snap and gave a pointless play action fake and then the backfield emptied. That left Ray Edwards with a clear path to the QB, and as soon as he deduced that it wasn’t a run, he ran straight at Ryan. Ryan had nowhere to go and had nowhere to throw the ball. Thankfully he didn’t try and make a haphazard pass to the flat that might have been picked off. I was hoping that he would just fall down and force the Vikings to call their 3rd timeout but Ryan threw off his back foot--with Edwards’ hands up and right in his face—down the right side of the field into the vicinity of two receivers and a few more Viking defenders. Luckily the pass landed in a perfect spot over the heads of some defenders and in front of others but it was still in play. Again my heart almost dropped. Plus I was angry even after the pass fell incomplete because that stopped the clock after just 4 seconds had come off and the Vikings would be getting the ball back with a timeout left and the two-minute warning. With the ball at the 19, Koenen backed up inside the 5. He had to get the kick away and he had to have one of his best efforts. He got the kick off and he turned in a good one, booting it high and pretty far. The Vikings called for a fair catch and after a punt of 48 yards they would take over at their own 33 with 2:14 to play. A pretty solid job by Koenen. It was all up to the defense. With that 1 timeout remaining and the two minute warning, the Vikes could afford to try and catch the Falcons off guard with a running play on 1st down and they did that, giving the ball to Peterson out of the shotgun. But the Falcons defense wasn’t fooled. Chauncey David brought Peterson down at the 35 and as he was bringing him down Peterson fumbled again but he landed right on this one at the 36. That took it to the 2 minute warning and the Vikings were done with running. On 2nd and 7, Jackson threw over the middle and the Falcons made the stop in bounds after a gain of 10. Jackson dropped back and fired incomplete on the next two plays. On 3rd and 10 with 1:26 to go, the Vikings committed a critical error, burning their final timeout with the clock stopped. This was huge. On 3rd down, Jackson took the shotgun snap and Big John Abraham came through like you thought he might, beating his man around the left, circling back, grabbing Jackson by the back of jersey and pulling him to him and knocking the ball free at the 40. The ball rolled laterally to the left and Ryan Cook fell on it at the 41. That saved possession but the Vikings couldn’t stop the clock and they were now facing 4th and 16. One more play. One more play would get it done. Jackson took the shotgun snap at the 1:02 mark and dropped back behind the 35. He was looking down the left sideline all the way. He pumped and then lofted a pass down the left sideline for Sidney Rice. Domonique Foxworth had coverage on him with the other defensive backs further downfield protecting against a bomb for a TD. As the ball came down and the two players reached the Atlanta 40, Rice began aggressively playing Foxworth, physically, almost as if he was on defense. Then he clearly pushed Foxworth towards the end zone. His plan was clearly to risk an offensive pass interference and push off Foxworth in hopes of either gaining the space needed to hang back and make the catch and get away with it or in hopes of forcing Foxworth to react physically back towards him and getting a pass interference call against Atlanta. But Foxworth fought back with Rice and stayed close to him. The ball came down as they reached the 34 and right as it got to the players Foxworth used Rice’s strategy against him, grabbing hold of the receivers right arm (which Rice had been trying to use to push off and shield off Foxworth) and tugging it just as the ball got there, forcing Rice to try and make the catch with just his left arm. The ball fell incomplete right in front of Mike Smith. He stepped on to the field and began waving his arms in circles. I waited to be sure there were no flags and none came. There was still 56 seconds on the clock. I couldn’t really allow myself to celebrate until the clock was at triple zero. Ryan came out and took a knee. The Falcons lined up once more and Ryan took the snap with 33 seconds on the clock and took a knee. The two sides began walking to the middle. It was over. The score was 24-17 and the clock was 0:00 at the end of 4. The Falcons had won it. They had gone up to Minnesota, to the Homer Dome, with a chance at greatness and they had come through again, for the 10th time this season. 10 wins!!! Playoffs!!! The Falcons were in—they were in—they were in the playoffs! I was standing at the bar at Bones in Atlanta. It was pretty quiet. Not because we all weren’t excited and thrilled but because we were all in a state of amazement that this moment was going on. Unbelievable. Un-fucking believable.

Numbers: Much of the numbers part of this game has to be almost ignored because of the huge influence that the rash of fumbles by Minnesota had on the game. Those fumbles stopped Minnesota drives and it allowed the Falcons to get ahead big early in the 2nd half. The Vikings basically had to shelve their running game and just start throwing the ball. The Falcons defense went into a mode of protecting against the big play. The Atlanta offense went into a mode of trying to run clock and the Vikings were able to key against the run without worrying as much about the pass. With all those things in mind, you have to look at the stats with restraint. But be that as it may, almost all the numbers favor the Vikings other than the turnovers and the final score. The Vikings outgained the Falcons by 128 yards, amassing 350 total yards while Atlanta gained just 222 yards of total offense. The Vikings had 6 more 1st downs than Atlanta (24-18), outrushed the Falcons by 57 yards (155-98), and had 71 more passing yards (195-124). The Vikings controlled the ball for 6 more minutes than the Falcons and committed just 3 penalties for 15 yards while Atlanta was charged with 6 penalties for 70 yards. The Falcons went 5 for 12 on 3rd down, while the Vikings converted on 6 of 13 3rd downs and went 2 for 4 on 4th down. The Falcons allowed 2 sacks but the Atlanta defense was able to ring up 3 sacks. But of course the biggest stat of the game was: 4-0; the Falcons’ edge in the turnover department. Their were no interceptions in the game, but the Vikings fumbled 7 times and lost 4 of them; the Falcons fumbled once and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. The Falcons gained just 98 yards rushing on 32 carries, averaging 3.1 per rush. Minnesota ran 31 times for 155 yards, averaging 5.0 yards a pop.

Matt Ryan made some big plays, managed the game well, and got rescued when he made his one major mistake of the day. He had a solid game and the stats weren’t really important, but for what it’s worth, he went 13 for 24 for 134 yards, 1 TD, and no INT. He was sacked twice and fumbled once but it was recovered for a Falcons’ TD. Michael Turner carried 19 times for 70 yards and a TD, averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Michael Jenkins caught 4 passes for 61 yards and Roddy White caught 3 passes for 24 yards. Jerrious Norwood caught a TD pass and Justin Blalock recovered a fumble in the end zone for a TD. Chris Houston and Michael Boley had fumble recoveries on defense, and Chauncey Davis had a sack and 2 fumble recoveries. John Abraham and Kindal Moorehead each recorded a sack. Jason Elam was good on his only field goal try. Michael Koenen punted 6 times for an average of 42.2 yards, pinning 2 punts inside the 20 against 1 touchback.

Tarvaris Jackson was pretty good other than the fumbles and some other mistakes. He went 22 for 36 for 233 yards, 2 TD, and 0 INT, but he took 3 sacks and fumbled 3 times, losing 2 of them. But really, Jackson should only have been charged with 1 fumble lost, as the botched handoff was clearly Peterson’s fault. Jackson ran 8 times for 76 yards, averaging 9.5 per rush. Peterson rushed 22 times for 76 yards, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, fumbling twice, losing 1 fumble. And again, he really lost 2 fumbles. He caught 2 passes for 16 yards. The Vikings’ main receiving weapon was Visanthe Shiancoe, who caught 7 passes for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns. Bernard Berrian caught just 2 passes for 18 yards and muffed a punt for the first fumble lost of the game. Center Matt Birk snapped the ball over Jackson’s head for a fumble that cost the Vikings 22 yards. Ray Edwards had both sacks for the Vikings. Ryan Longwell was good on his only field goal try. One of the oddest stats in an odd game: the Vikings scored on only 3 of their 11 possessions, yet only punted once.

Final Comments: As far as this individual game, it will be remembered for its utter weirdness. But this victory was really all about this Falcons team, this franchise, this entire season, and the full recovery from rock bottom to miracle season. All though the two seasons aren’t really that similar, throughout this 2008 season, I kept thinking back to the 1991 Atlanta Falcons’ season. For me that was a special season because it was the first time since I had been aware of what football and the Falcons were that we had a winning record and made the playoffs. I was pretty much a freak for sports from the start and my dad had gotten season tickets the year before and we had them again in 1991 which was the final year that we played in Atlanta-Fulton Country Stadium. We beat the Niners on a Hail Mary play at home and the win over the Bears this season reminded me of that game. I was at the 15th game in 1991 which was the last game at AFC. We beat the Seahawks to go to 10-5 and clinch a playoff berth. It all worked out in the 15th game this year too, with everything falling into place both around the League and in the game in Minnesota. It was also neat that this victory came in the same place as the biggest victory in franchise history, the overtime win in the 1998 NFC Championship Game.

I had come into the year with no expectations and I tried hard to keep my expectations down all season. Actually, as great as things kept going, it wasn’t hard for me to temper my confidence, as I’ve been a Falcons fan all my life. But through it all, I never focused on the playoffs or got my hopes up for the playoffs. When it all happened it was icing on the cake for me. But it was pretty magical the way it all came together. After the loss to the Saints, when everything else around the League went against us too, I started to get the sense that things might be coming to an end. Not that the season could ever be a disappointment or failure at that point but it started to look like we were most likely going to come up short of making the playoffs. And no matter how I looked at it, I knew that getting into the playoffs would be the difference between the season being fun and remarkable, to historic for this franchise. It looked like we would have to win out in our final 3 games, against the Bucs, at the Vikings, and against the Rams to have any kind of shot at making the playoffs. After we beat Tampa I felt great relief because it clinched a winning record and that was all I had been focused on. Whether or not we fit into the NFL’s playoff formula was something that seemed uncontrollable. Heading into week 16, it was the same as before: we had to win out and hope for the best. I didn’t think we would win at Minnesota. I remember during the week on the local sports talk radio there was some sentiment that we were going to win out but that it wasn’t going to matter in the end, we were going to miss out on the playoffs anyway. I wasn’t very hopeful on either front. And I never even started to think about or figure out how the Falcons could clinch a playoff spot in week 16. But then things started to turn on that Saturday night, with the Cowboys losing at home to the Ravens. Then early on Sunday things kept rolling with the Bucs losing at home to San Diego. And suddenly it was right there in front of us. And then everything went right up in Minnesota, righter than they’ve ever gone for this team. And at the end we were in the playoffs with a week to spare. From late Sunday in week 15 when we won in OT over the Bucs to Sunday evening in week 16 when we finished off the win in Minnesota has to rank as one of the all-time magical 8 day period’s in this franchise’s history.

Week 17: vs. St. Louis, Win, 31-27.

General Comments: The Falcons’ place in the NFC playoff standings and their outlook on the postseason changed pretty dramatically during week 16. They went from being on the outside looking in at a Wild Card spot and needing to win out and get help from others, to clinching a playoff spot, and amazingly, going into week 17 with a chance to win the NFC South Division Title, earn a first round bye, and guarantee a home playoff game in the Divisional Round. I mean, if you would have told me on the Friday before the Falcons’ game again the Vikings that we would not be playing during the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, I would have immediately been upset because that would mean we hadn’t made the playoffs. It would never have entered my mind to inquire whether we would be playing during the Divisional Round, because the Falcons seemed out of the race for the division, and the #2 seed was out of the question. Even after we beat the Vikings and clinched a playoff spot, I didn’t immediately understand that we had a reason to turn our attention to the Sunday night game for any reason other than that it was a highly anticipated matchup. The Panthers-Giants game in New Jersey in primetime on Sunday in week 16 had been billed as a battle of the top 2 teams in the NFC. This wasn’t just for pride and acclaim. This was the game for the #1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The winner of the game would clinch that #1 seed and that homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. But what I didn’t really understand was how much bigger the fall off could be for the Panthers than for the Giants. Carolina, despite going into week 16 with an 11-3 record and a chance to clinch the #1 seed with a win over New York, hadn’t even clinched a playoff spot at the start of the week. I guess I knew that but I didn’t really think about the idea that if they lost to the Giants and then lost to the Saints in week 17 and some other teams around the League won that the Panthers could actually miss the playoffs. That possibility was put to bed when the Cowboys lost to the Ravens on Saturday night. That clinched a playoff spot for the Panthers. The Giants had clinched the NFC East earlier in the year but they didn’t clinch a first round bye until the Falcons beat Minnesota late Sunday. So by the time of Sunday night’s game, both the Panthers and Giants were in more secure positions, but there could still be a precipitous fall for the Panthers should they not win the game, where as the Giants were either going to be the #1 or #2 seed based on the outcome of that night’s game. It turned out to be a great game but I really didn’t watch it with an understanding of how important it could be for my team. It looked for most of the night like the Panthers would win and would indeed steal homefield advantage away from the Giants, but then New York came back and stole the game away Carolina in overtime. With that, the Giants wrapped up the #1 seed in the NFC that seemed a near certainty for them before the Plaxico Burress incident a few weeks before. But the Panthers were left with their playoff position still very much undecided. It was now that I began to realize how real the possibility was that the Falcons could actually end up winning the NFC South, having a first round bye in the playoffs, and then hosting a playoff game in the Divisional Round. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to the possibilities, and the situation the Falcons could find themselves in. If the Panthers won in week 17 they would win the NFC South and the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. But if the Falcons won their game and Carolina lost, the Falcons would win the division, the first round bye, and the #2 seed. There was no question who had the tougher game in week 17 between Atlanta and Carolina. The Panthers had to travel to New Orleans to play the 8-7 Saints after playing a hard hitting, cold, overtime game in New York on Sunday night which they eventually lost. And the Saints definitely had something to play for, not just a chance at a winning record, but also the all-time single season passing yards record that Drew Brees was chasing. The Falcons would be playing at home against the 2-13 St. Louis Rams, who in my opinion may have been the worst team in football this year despite Detroit’s 0-16 record. The Panthers were just 3-4 on the road so far this season and NFC South teams had been dominant at home, with the Saints coming in 6-1 at home so far this year. The Falcons were 6-1 at home and the Rams were 1-6 on the road and had lost 9 straight overall. The Panthers were 1 point favorites over the Saints; the Falcons were favored by 14 over the Rams. I was starting to think that not only was this thing possible, if you really looked at it, I thought it was at least 50-50, and maybe even the most likely outcome.

Man, I had my heart set on that division title and that first round bye and that home game. I had played it all out in my mind. I thought that whoever we played at home in the Divisional Round—be it Tampa, Minnesota, Carolina, Dallas, Philly, Arizona, or Chicago—I felt confident we would win. And then, if by some chance, whoever the other first round winner was could knock off the Giants, we would be hosting the NFC Championship for the first time in team history. Whoever we played against, I felt confident we would reach the Super Bowl for the 2nd time in franchise history. You see how I jumped in the matter of days from trying not to even think about the playoffs because it was likely not going to happen, to us having a puncher’s chance at the NFC Championship. I’ll say this: I knew that if we ended up having to go to New York to play the Giants that that would be where the journey would end. But as long as we were at home I thought we would be favored against any NFC team (obviously excluding the Giants who we couldn’t play at home because they were the #1 seed). Now the season finale at home against the Rams had been sitting off at the end of the road and causing me mixed emotions for more than a month. On the one hand, it was a comfort because I knew that if it came down to it and we were 8-7 going into the final game that we would have a very good chance of winning that game and finishing the season with a winning record, regardless of whatever hangover we had from not making the postseason. And if we still had a chance at the playoffs going into the final week it was comforting to know that we had in my mind the easiest possible matchup we could have had. But then there was a pang of fear that kept butting in out of habit. As a Falcons fan, you are always prepared for the worst possible outcome. I didn’t expect it, but I was trained to be aware of the possibility, of the chance that the nightmare could occur. I feared the disaster scenario: needing only a win to get into the playoffs, the wheels finally come off of the dream train, and we somehow lose to a historically bad team at home, somehow figuring out a way to ruin this great season. Once we clinched the playoff spot I started to dread a less horrifying but still revolting possibility: with the playoff spot secured we lose focus and suffer an awful loss to a horrible team in the final game of the season to enter the playoffs on a really bad note. And I also wanted 11 wins. I had been mostly concerned with wins and not the playoffs this year all along, and I wanted us to win as many games as we could. When I realized that we were going to be playing the game with a chance to win the division I obviously became less concerned about a let down. However, I was still worried about the possibility of losing the game and going into the playoffs with no momentum. Or even worse, there was a fear of the Panthers losing, and all we need to win the division, the first round bye, and the homefield advantage is to beat the Rams and we lose. That would not only send us into the playoffs on a down note, it would be a monumental missed opportunity, and would—in all likelihood—be a mental and moral blow that we would be unable to overcome the following week on the road in the Wild Card Round. But I really didn’t think that nightmare situation would happen. I was worried about the game in a way that was similar to how I had been worried about the Denver game. You couldn’t make a logical argument for why the Falcons wouldn’t win but that sort of thing happens every week in the NFL. However, I have to say that I was feeling really good about the game and really confident. I had grown to believe that this team was special and that this team had the football gods on their side. I thought there was a decent chance that the Saints would beat the Panthers and I was very, very confident that we would take care of business against the Lams. Actually, I thought we would cover the 14 point spread.

This wasn’t a game I enjoyed, I’ll tell you that much. It was a unique experience, sitting at home, watching our game, while simultaneously watching the Carolina-New Orleans game on my other TV. And talk about a rollercoaster ride. I was not at all sure we were going to win our game until we stopped them on downs in the final minute. And of course in the other game, I thought the Panthers had it wrapped up for sure at one point and completely gave up. Then I thought the Saints had it won and we were going to win the division if we could hang on in our game. And then when Steve Smith made that play I knew we weren’t winning the division no matter what happened in our game. My mixed emotions continued after the action was over. I was relieved that we had avoided a bad loss and happy that we had finished 11-5. But I was also obviously disappointed that we hadn’t ended up winning the division, and the bye, and the homefield, etc. And like other fans, I was concerned by some of the things that I saw on the field in our final game. But of course now I can look back and just appreciate that this group of winners finished the deal and finished off a dream season with an 11-5 record. They made us proud to be Falcons fans again and again. In fact, I was proud to be a Falcons fan from game 1 through game 16 and all the moments in between.

1st Quarter Comments: The way things started out I thought we were going to blow the Rams out as expected. Big John Abraham threw Stephen Jackson for a 2 yard loss on the first play of the game, and then on 3rd and 9, Stephen Nicholas sacked Marc Bulger for a loss of 6 and a 3 and out on St. Louis’ first possession. The Falcons took over at their own 24 after the punt and Ryan hit Jerious Norwood on a nice rollout pass to the right for 22 yards to the 49. That was the start of a big day for J-No. Jenkins caught a pass for 15 yards and a 1st down at the 28. On 3rd and 9 from the 27, Matt Ryan threw to Harry Douglas for a gain of 6 and the Falcons decided to send out the field goal unit on 4th and 3 from the 21. Jason Elam kicked the 39 yarder right down the pipe to put the Falcons on top, 3-0. As we all knew by now, when the Falcons scored first, it usually meant a win.

The Rams second drive began at the 19 but this time Bulger threw to Torry Holt for a quick first down and then Stephen Jackson broke off a run down the right side for a gain of 36 before being knocked out of bounds at the Atlanta 31. Jackson eluded being tackled in the backfield by Jonathan Babineaux, ran through a big hole on the right side on the play, Kroy Biermann missed on a tackle attempt, and then Jackson ran through a tackle attempt by Erik Coleman. The Falcons would miss the run stopping abilities of Lawyer Milloy in this game, as he was trying to get healthy for the playoffs. The Rams drove inside the Atlanta red zone and on 3rd and 2 from the 4, Jackson took the handoff and ran charging up the middle and ran over Erik Coleman and then dragged him with him as he stretched the ball over the goal line for a touchdown. That put the Rams ahead 7-3 after a 7 play, 81 yard drive.

They say that teams playing with nothing to lose are dangerous, and the Rams certainly qualified. They kicked an onsides kick on the ensuing kickoff and recovered it but it was wiped out due to an offsides penalty. They kicked it deep the second time. On 3rd and 3 from the Atlanta 39, Ryan threw a short pass to Roddy White incomplete but defensive pass interference made it a 1st down at the 43. On 3rd and 4 from the 49, Ryan threw left to MJ for a gain of 3. The Falcons lined up to go for it on 4th and 1 from the St. Louis 48. I definitely thought this was the right move, but the Falcons were just bluffing and the Rams didn’t jump offsides. The Falcons took a delay of game penalty and punted. The Falcons defense forced at St. Louis punt and Michael Turner appeared to be starting to get warmed up as the 1st quarter came to a close, but the Falcons were down 7-3.

Meanwhile in New Orleans, the Panthers drove for FG’s on their 2 1st quarter possessions, and the Saints went 3 and out on their first drive. The Panthers led 6-0 on the road at the end of the 1st, but the Saints were driving as the quarter came to a close.

2nd Quarter Comments: Early in the 2nd, the Falcons had the ball at their 48, but on 3rd and 4, Ryan threw a pass to the right for Harry Douglas and it was picked off by Jason Craft at the St. Louis 37. He returned it to the Atlanta 47. But the Falcons defense came up with a 3 and out and the Falcons got the ball back after a punt. On 3rd and 7 from the Atlanta 30, Ryan was sacked by James Hall for a loss of 6 and Michael Koenen punted the ball back to the Rams at their 36. Jackson ran through a big hole for 23 yards and a 1st down at the Falcons 41. On 3rd and 3 from the 34, Bulger threw incomplete to bring up 4th down. The Rams decided to go for it on 4th and 3 from the Atlanta 34. The Falcons brought Jamal Fudge on a blitz around the left side and he forced Bulger to step to the right and Kroy Biermann came around the right side and sacked him for a 10 yard loss to give the Falcons the ball at their own 45. On 3rd and 1 from the Rams 45, Ryan took the sneak for a yard and a 1st down at the 44. On the next play, Ryan threw a bomb down the middle of the field for MJ and he made the catch at the 4 for a gain of 41. A false start made it 1st and goal from the 9, but Turner erased it on the next play by running right and scoring in the right corner of the end zone to set the franchise single season record for total touchdowns with his 17th. That put the Falcons ahead again, 10-7, with 4:43 to play in the half.

The Rams next drive began with a 9 yard run by Antonio Pittman. The Falcon defense was not having much success at all stopping the run. On 2nd and 9 from the 31, Torry Holt got a step on Coleman down the right sideline and Bulger dropped in a beautiful pass for a gain of 19 and a 1st down at the 50. On 3rd and 8 from the Atlanta 48, Bulger went to Holt for 12 and a 1st down at the 36. After the 2 minute warning the Rams had a 3rd and 4 from the 30 and Jackson carried for 9 yards to the 21. On 2nd and 5 from the 16, Donnie Avery burned Domonique Foxworth badly and Bulger fired down the middle to Avery in the end zone for an easy score to put the Rams back on top, 14-10, with just 32 seconds left in the half.

It was pretty disturbing that the Falcons had allowed the Rams to go on an 11 play, 81 yard drive late in the half to retake the lead. Fortunately, Jerious Norwood came through with another clutch kick return to help the Falcons erase that defensive lapse. J-No took the kick at the goal line. He had to have a splendid return for the Falcons to even try and do anything in the final half minute of the half. He found a seam and turned on the jets. The only thing about the return that wasn’t stellar was that he got caught. Craft foiled the Falcons again by tripping Norwood up from behind at the 8. The Falcons had a 1st and goal and all their timeouts but only 20 seconds to work with. After an incomplete pass on 1st down they had only 16 seconds. On 2nd and goal from the 8, Mike Mularkey dialed up another brilliant play and the Falcons executed it beautifully. Both J-No and Ryan lined up in the shotgun right next to each other. The snap went right to J-No and it was a trap play but he cut it back left across the middle of the field and scampered into the end zone for a TD to put the Falcons back on top, 17-14, with just 11 seconds left on the clock. It was nice that Jerious got to finish off the drive he created on the return with a TD. After the kickoff and a run by Jackson, the two teams went to the lockers for halftime with the Falcons struggling but holding a 3 point lead, 17-14.

In New Orleans, the Saints drove inside the Carolina 5 early in the 2nd quarter but had to settle for a FG to make it a 6-3 game. The Panthers responded by driving for their 3rd FG in as many possessions to make it 9-3. On the ensuing Saints drive, Drew Brees was intercepted and the Panthers got the ball back in New Orleans territory at the 29. It took 4 plays for the Panthers to get into the end zone for their first TD of the game to make it 16-3 with just 3:03 left in the half. It was not looking good for Falcons fans. It would quickly get much, much worse. On the ensuing kickoff, some dumbshit return man for the Saints decided to take a kick that was 4 yards deep in the end zone and bring it out to the 12 where he got hit and fumbled the ball. Dante Wesley took it right away from him and pranced into the end zone for a stunning touchdown to make it suddenly a 20 point game. The Panthers had scored 2 TD’s in 10 seconds and now led 23-3. It looked over for the Birds. I was obviously bummed but at least I thought it wouldn’t be quite as disastrous if we ended up loosing this back and forth game with the Rams that had turned out to be much harder than expected. I had thought that Drew Brees’ quest for the passing record would be a positive but the bastard was just 5 for 11 for 47 yards and a pick up to this point. But in the final 3 minutes of the half, Brees got hot and led the Saints on a drive for a late TD that was absolutely crucial for New Orleans (and therefore, Atlanta’s) chances. The Saints started at their 20 and Brees hit on 6 straight passes to march his team deep into Carolina territory, but then Marques Colston fumbled at the end of a 21 yard reception and the Panthers recovered at their won 15. That pissed me the hell off. But the play was challenged and the ruling was reversed. It would instead be an incomplete pass, brining up 3rd and 9 from the 36. Brees hit Devery Henderson for a gain of 10 and a 1st down and then threw deep down the right side for Colston and he made the catch for a 26 yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 13 with just 40 seconds to go in the half. So there was life. The Panthers actually moved the ball into New Orleans territory before the clock finally ran out in the 1st half with the score 23-10, Carolina. It wasn’t looking good for Falcons fans but it was looking a 1,000 times better than it had a few minutes before.

3rd Quarter Comments: The Falcons got the ball first in the 2nd half and they came out like they were determined to take this game over and put it away. Turner ran for 17 yards on the 1st play of the possession to take the ball to the Atlanta 42. Then Ryan dropped back and threw while backing up, deep down the middle for Roddy White and he went up and made the catch for a 22 yard gain and a 1st down at the STL 36. With that catch, Roddy broke the franchise single season record for receiving yards. Turner was rolling now. He ran for 10 and then 8, and then on 2nd and 2 from the 18, Matty dropped back and fired a deep out to the left corner of the end zone for Roddy and he made the catch for the touchdown to cap a 5 play, 75 yard drive that put the Falcons ahead by 2 scores for the first time in the game. Now I thought we might break the Rams spirit and plow them over the rest of the way.

On the Rams first possession of the 3rd, the Atlanta defense stopped them for a 3 and out and they appeared to be punting the ball back to the Falcons on 4th and 3 from their own 27. But then that “team with nothing to lose” thing came up again, as the Rams ran a fake punt, snapping the ball to the upback, Travis Minor, who went up the middle for a gain of 4, just making the 1st down by a yard at the 31. But Atlanta’s defense regrouped and stopped the Rams again and forced another punting situation on 4th and 4 from the 37. This time the Lams did punt. The Atlanta drive began promising with a 14 yard carry by Turner but it stalled out at the 36 and the Falcons punted the ball back to the Rams at their own 29 with 6:18 left in the 3rd. The Rams were hit with a false start on a 3rd and 1 to make it 3rd and 6 instead, but Bulger got the ball to Avery and he managed to pick up 8 yards for a 1st down at the 41. Jackson then caught a pass for a gain of 36 and a 1st down at the Atlanta 23. On 3rd and 2 from the 15, the Falcons stopped Jackson after a gain of a yard and on 4th and 1 from the 14 the Rams settled for a 31 yard field goal that made it a 7 point game with 1:39 left in the 3rd. Matty Ryan threw 3 straight incompletions on the ensuing Atlanta possession to give it right back to the Rams and St. Louis was already back in Falcon territory when the clock ran out in the period to send the game to the 4th with the Falcons leading it 24-17.

While the Falcons were trying to hold off the Rams, the Saints were trying to stay alive against the Panthers down in the Big Easy. New Orleans got the ball first in the 2nd half but they could do nothing and the Panthers went 72 yards in just 5 plays on their first drive to make it a 20 point game again, 30-10, with not even 5 minutes gone in the 3rd quarter. The Saints did nothing on their 2nd possession of the half and the Panthers moved right back into New Orleans territory. The late New Orleans touchdown at the end of the 1st half had been false hope. This game was over. I wasn’t really even paying that much attention anymore, as we were having our own problems with the Lams. On 3rd and 4 from the Saints 23, DeAngelo Williams was stopped for no gain, and the Saints were at least able to make the Panthers settle for a 41 yard field goal try by John Kasay. Kasay had had a chance to win the game against the Giants and the #1 seed in the NFC the previous week but his 50 yard field goal try had gone begging. Thus far today he was 3 for 3. This was a very, very makable kick, just 41 yards, indoors, but Kasay hooked it wide left. The game appeared over anyway, but 3 more points here would have made it a 23 point lead for the Panthers with 3:22 to play in the 3rd quarter and would have put things just about out of reach. That would have forced the Saints to score 3 TD’s and 2 two-point conversions to tie, or more likely, 3 TD’s and a FG to take the lead. Actually, neither was likely in anyway, but a 20 point deficit was not quite as bad as a 23 point deficit. Brees was scuffling but he was about to heat up and so was this contest. Surprisingly, it would be longtime Saint Deuce McAllister who would get New Orleans rolling. He caught a pass and picked up 20 yards to give the Saints a 1st down just inside Carolina territory. Brees hit Lance Moore for 14 yards and then Deuce ran for 5 on 3rd and 1 to pick up a 1st down at the 35. Robert Meachem caught a pass from Brees for 14 yards and then Deuce cut the distance to the end zone in half with a 7 yard rush. On 3rd and 3 from the 14, Deuce rushed for 7 to give the Saints a 1st and goal at the 7 as the clock ran out in the 3rd quarter with the score 30-10 in favor of Carolina. It looked like Carolina had the division sewed up but the Saints weren’t quite dead yet.

4th Quarter Comments: The final quarter began with the Rams continuing to find success running the ball against Atlanta with Stephen Jackson or anyone they found on their sidelines. On 1st down from the 35 of the Falcons, Bulger threw deep down the left side for Holt who was being single covered by Chris Houston. Bulger placed the ball in beautifully and Houston couldn’t stop it and Holt went out of bounds at the 2 after a gain of 33. On 1st and goal from the 2, the Rams gave it to Jackson and he ran right and broke Chevis Jackson’s ankle tackle and scored to tie the game at 24 with still 13:18 in the game. These guys were not going away.

The defense was getting thrashed and it was pretty disturbing that the Falcons had blown their 10 point 2nd half lead at home against the worst or 2nd worst team in the NFL when they were playing for a possible division title. I was hoping the Falcons would answer quickly the way they had at the end of the 1st half and it looked like they had on the 1st play of their next possession. Michael Turner took the handoff on 1st down from the 26 and busted through a huge hole up the middle and broke out in front of the St. Louis secondary as he took it across the 50 and headed towards the end zone. The Rams did not quit on the play. Several defensive backs were chasing Turner down as he crossed the 20 and then the 10, and as he reached the 5 yard line, Ronald Bartell caught up with him from behind. As Turner fell forward to the 4, Bartell used Turner’s momentum and weight against him while tugging at the ball. Turner felt Bartell from behind and he braced himself and tried to make sure he held on to the ball but Bartell was able to pull it free at the exact moment that Turner landed on his back at the 4 yard line. The ball rolled forward into the end zone and Bartell recovered it. The officials ruled it was a fumble recovered by the Rams in the end zone for a touchback. This was crucial. It was very, very close on the replay. The Falcons challenged and I really thought it might get overturned and I believe it would have been upheld if the officials had ruled that Turner was down by contact. But since the officials said it was a fumble originally, they decided to uphold it. A 70 yard run went for nothing.

The Rams picked up 1 first down and then the drive stalled and they punted into the Atlanta end zone for a touchback with 10:45 on the clock. The Falcons were immediately faced with a 3rd and 6 from their own 24. Ryan dropped back and threw off his back foot, lobbing a short armed pass to the right for Roddy who was tightly covered and Jonathan Wade intercepted easily at the 30. He returned it to the Falcons 22. It was a bad decision and bad pass by Ryan and it was virtually the same throw he had made a number of times in recent weeks for interceptions where he tried to throw to a crossing receiver in tight coverage and did not put anywhere near enough juice on the ball. The Rams now had the ball at Atlanta’s 22 yard line with less than 10 minutes to go and it was a tie ball game. Now this was getting serious. Jackson went for 5 and then 6 more to give the Rams a 1st down at the 11. They appeared headed into the end zone again but at this point the Falcons defense—which was now without Lawyer Milloy, Jamaal Anderson, and John Abraham—came up with a big hold. Fudge and Biermann combined on another big play, hitting Jackson in the backfield on a toss to the right for a loss of 5 back at the 16. Holt caught a pass for 6 yards to bring up 3rd and 9 at the 10. Bulger dropped a pass off to Jackson and the Falcons brought him down at the 9 for a gain of just 1. That forced the Rams to settle for a 27 yard field goal try. Josh Brown kicked it straight through to put St. Louis ahead, 27-24, with just 6:39 left in the game.

It was definitely scary now, but keeping the Rams to a FG had me breathing easier, as I knew we could tie it up with a FG and maybe score a TD to win it. I didn’t want to be down 7 and having to score a TD just to tie it up. The Falcons started their next drive at their own 20. Turner ran for 8 yards, then 1, and then on 3rd and 1 from the 29 he picked up 8 for a 1st down at the 37. I wanted the Falcons to run a QB sneak on that play and I felt if they didn’t get it they should go for it on 4th down, but luckily Turner made all of that moot. Turner gained 5 on the next play. Just a few more first downs and the Falcons would be in field goal range. On 2nd and 5, Ryan took the snap as the clock ticked under 4 minutes to play, and threw to the right to Jenks for a gain of 13 and a 1st down at the Rams 45. On the next play, Ryan gave to Norwood and he burst threw a huge hole over the middle for a big gain. He juked the safety and cut left and hightailed it towards the end zone. One Rams defensive back got a hand on his leg from behind at the 10 but Norwood stayed on his feet and this time he would not be caught, taking it all the way into the end zone for a 45 yard TD run that put the Falcons back on top, 31-27, with 3:41 to play. Now that was exactly what we needed. Take all of the chances for error out of it.

While this was all going on, the Saints were making a furious and dramatic comeback in New Orleans that was making the game with the Rams seem more important by the second. On the 2nd play of the 4th quarter, Brees threw a 7 yard TD pass to Meachem to make the score 30-17. So it was now a two TD game again but it didn’t seem to make any difference because the Panthers just went right back down the field into Saints territory on their next possession. But on 2nd and 6 from the New Orleans 34, Jonathan Stewart was hit in the backfield for a 1 yard loss. A false start made it 3rd and 12, and the Saints gave up a pass completion for a gain of just 2 yards on 3rd down to bring up 4th and 10 from the 38. The Panthers were in no man’s land and they decided to punt. They were able to pin the Saints at their 11 with 10:07 left on the clock. After a false start the Saints were backed up to their 6 and facing 1st and 15. But Brees threw for 7 yards and then 4 yards to make it 3rd and 4 from the 17, and on 3rd down he hit Lance Moore for a gain of 20 and a 1st down at the 37. Moore caught a pass for 17 and a 1st down at the Carolina 46 on the next play. On 3rd and 10, Brees went to Colston for 14 and a 1st down at the 32. Brees was now on fire and he completed his next pass for 15 and a 1st down at the 17 but a holding penalty derailed the drive. Moments later the Saints found themselves facing 3rd and 22 from the 29. Brees threw deep for Colston incomplete but the Panthers were flagged for being offsides and instead of 4th and 22 it was 3rd and 17. Brees then hit Meachem for a gain of 15. The Saints called their 2nd timeout with 5:38 on the clock. They were facing 4th and 2 from the 9 yard line. If they failed to pick up the first down here the game was over. But Brees came out and fired a TD pass to Moore in the corner. The score was now closer than it had been since early in the 2nd quarter. Carolina got the ball back and the momentum kept on carrying the Saints. On 2nd and 8, Jake Delhomme was sacked for a loss of 6 and he threw incomplete on 3rd and 14 for a 3 and out. Jason Baker punted the ball off the side of his foot and it traveled just 21 yards before going out of bounds to give the Saints the ball at the Carolina 45, down just 30-24 with just under 4 minutes remaining. I was starting to believe. Brees was rolling, the crowd in the Superdome was rocking, and it was starting to look like a thing that the Panthers were helpless to stop. Brees threw to Deuce for a gain of 6 and then hit Colston down the left side for a gain of 26 and a 1st down at the 13. On the next play, Brees dumped a pass over the middle to Moore for a touchdown to tie the game at 30-30. Gary Hartley kicked the extra point up and good to give the Saints their first lead of the game, 31-30, with 3:11 left on the clock.

Back in Atlanta, the 31-30 score from New Orleans flashed up on the screen at the Georgia Dome. The fans went nuts and the team now knew that stopping the Rams on this next possession might be good enough for a division title. Koenen booted a touchback. The Rams would start at their 20, needing a TD, with 2 timeouts, and 3:41 on the clock. The drive did not begin well for Atlanta. Bulger threw a long completion to give the Rams 29 easy yards on the first play of the drive, taking the ball to midfield. Then Jackson ran up the middle for 14 yards and a 1st down at the Falcons’ 37. The Rams were taking their sweet time, wanting to leave the Falcons as little time as possible to answer. Jackson went left for a gain of 8, taking the ball to the 28 yard line and bringing up the 2-minute warning. The Rams had a 2nd and 2. During the year, the Falcons often got a big defensive play from Big John Abraham in situations like this that saved the day. That was not going to happen here, as he had been out for the entire second half. But Chauncey Davis stepped up and delivered an Abraham like play this time. On 2nd and 2, Chauncey came around and sacked Bulger for an 8 yard loss all the way back at the 37. That made it a 3rd and 10. Bulger didn’t get the next play off until the 1:20 mark and he fired over the head of his intended receiver to bring up 4th and 10 from the 37 with 1:15 on the clock. The Falcons needed just 1 more play.

While the Rams were driving down the field on a Falcons defense that was beginning to seem like a liability, the Panthers were doing the same thing against a Saints defense that has kept that franchise from achieving greatness in recent years. The Panthers’ drive started at their own 18 but they only needed a field goal to take the lead and you had a sense that the Saints might have scored too quickly. But all it would take was one stop. On the 1st play of the drive, Delhomme dropped back to throw and found nobody open. He held the ball, looked, dropped back a bit more as the protection began to break down, bought time, and then with the walls caving in on him as he stood at the 9, he winged the ball high in the air down the left sideline just as he was hit from behind. For a moment it looked like Delhomme would be eaten up by the Saints pass rushers inside his own 10, but the moment that he got the Hail Mary like pass off down the left side I knew that we were fucked. Anyone who follows the NFL knew who Delhomme was throwing the ball to and knew exactly what was going to happen. Steve Smith was going to go leap up high in the air and steal the ball away from two defenders. That’s exactly what did happen. Smith jumped up and caught the jump ball between two defenders and came down with it at the Saints 43 for a gain of 39. At that point it was basically over. Williams picked up 4 yards on the ground on the next play to take it to the 2-minute warning. Then Delhomme hit Muhsin Muhammad for 8 yards and a 1st down at the 31. The Saints used their last time out. Williams ran for 1, then 8, and then on 3rd and 1 he picked up 2 more yards for a 1st down at the 20. The Panthers ran the clock all the way down to 6 seconds and called a timeout. On the first FG attempt the Panthers committed a false start to give us just a slight glimmer of hope. Now the try was from 42 yards, and Kasay had already missed from 41 on the day. But it was unlikely he would miss twice. He didn’t, booting the 42 yarder right through to put the Panthers ahead, 33-31, with 1 second left on the clock. Kasay had redeemed himself for missing the week before but he would have to kick off to the Saints. Like the former Bulldawg kicker had done late in the Super Bowl in 2003, Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds. This meant that no time went off the clock and the Saints would have a chance to throw one. As we learned earlier this year when the Saints scored a meaningless touchdown on the final play of a loss to the Falcons, Brees can throw a decent Hail Mary pass. But the Saints weren’t thinking about winning. They were thinking about the 16 yards that Brees needed to break Dan Marino’s single season record for passing yards. Instead of sending all of his receivers deep and buying time and firing a long bomb to the end zone to try and win the game, Brees dropped back and attempted to hit Lance Moore up the right side at the 40 for a completion of 25 yards. The football gods had been with the Falcons all season, and if they weren’t going to let the Falcons win the division, they at least were not going to let Brees break this record by throwing a medium range pass instead of trying for a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. Moore was—as you might imagine considering that the Carolina defenders were expecting a pass a little further down the field—wide open, but Brees inexplicably came up with his worst throw of the day, chucking it into the turf 5 yards past Moore and to his left. He was 16 yards short and now he couldn’t even pretend that all of those yards had had any worth at all. But the Panthers had won the game, 33-31, and the division, and the bye, and the homefield.

This was all unknown to the Falcons as they prepared to defend on 4th and 10 with the Rams at the Atlanta 37. Bulger took the snap and dropped back to throw and Jonathan Babineaux got in and pressured him and forced him to throw in a hurry. He fired up the right sideline for Avery but Foxworth had good coverage on him and the pass was too high and went incomplete to end the drive. The Falcons had held again. Matt Ryan took a knee and the Rams called their last timeout at the 1:05 mark. But after Matty took a knee twice more the clock ran all the way down to triple zero and the Falcons had the win, 31-27, to end their regular season with an 11th victory. Unfortunately, a lot of the players thought they had just won the division and the #2 seed in the playoffs, and didn’t realize what had happened until they got back into the locker room. Several of the players admitted that it was certainly a letdown. But Mike Smith gave a rousing talk to his club and had everybody feeling confident about their chances in the playoffs anyway, even if they would have to go on the road now and play a week earlier than they had hoped.

Numbers: Once again, though the Falcons prevailed in week 17, the numbers from their win over the Rams were not all that pretty. The Falcons outgained the Rams by just 9 yards, amassing 417 yards of offense, but allowing 408 yards of total offense to St. Louis. The Rams had 5 more first downs than the Falcons (22-17), and while the Rams went 5 for 15 on 3rd down conversions and 1 for 3 on 4th down, the Falcons were just 2 for 10 on 3rd down. The Rams passed for 52 more yards than the Falcons (206-154). The Falcons outrushed St. Louis by 61 yards, rushing for 263 yards, but they allowed 202 yards on the ground to the Rams. Atlanta rushed for 263 yards on 32 carries, averaging 8.2 yards a pop. The Rams gained 202 yards on 37 carries for an average of 5.5 yards a rush. Both teams committed 3 penalties for 14 yards. The Rams had an almost 10 minute edge in time of possession. The Falcons won despite losing the turnover battle 0-3, losing 1 fumble and throwing 2 picks. The Falcons recorded 3 sacks and gave up just 1. Atlanta outscored the Rams 17-14 in the 1st half and 14-13 in the 2nd half.

Matt Ryan had another shaky game, going just 10 for 21 for 160 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, and taking 1 sack. Michael Turner had a huge day, rushing 25 times for 208 yards and a TD, averaging 8.3 yards per carry, though he did lose a fumble at the end of his 70 yard run. Jerious Norwood also had a huge game, rushing 3 times for 56 yards and a pair of TD’s on the ground, catching a pass for 22 yards, and returning 5 kickoffs for 192 yards, an average of 38.4 per return, including 1 for 92 yards. Michael Jenkins caught 4 passes for 72 yards and Roddy White made 3 catches for 48 yards and a TD. Kroy Biermann, Chauncey Davis, and Stephen Nicholas each recorded 1 sack. Jason Elam was good on his only FG try. Michael Koenen punted 4 times for an average of just 36.8 yards, none in the 20, but he didn’t allow any return yards, and he and the Falcons punt coverage team broke the NFL single season record for least punt return yards allowed. Marc Bulger completed 19 for 32 passes for 230 yards, 1 TD and no picks, though he did take 3 sacks. Stephen Jackson shredded the Falcons defense, rushing 30 times for 161 yards and 2 TD, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and also catching 4 passes for 54 yards. Torry Holt torched the Falcons secondary for 6 catches and 90 yards. Donnie Avery made 5 catches for 40 yards and a TD. Ronald Bartell forced and recovered the game’s only fumble, Jason Craft and Jonathan Wade each had an INT, and James Hall had the Rams’ only sack. Josh Brown was good on both of his FG attempts and Donnie Jones punted 5 times, averaging 48.8 a punt, pining 2 in the 20 against 1 touchback.

Final Comments: Thankfully the Falcons survived this last game to end the season on a winning note and finish the year 11-5, completing 1 of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history. In terms of regular season wins, this year is tied for the 3rd best season in Falcons history. This was the Atlanta Falcons’ 43rd season of existence and this year was just their 14th non-losing season, their 11th winning season, and their 5th season with double digit wins. It was a bummer that the Panthers ended up pulling it out in the end in New Orleans and thus we did not win the division. That field goal made by Kasay had an enormous impact on the Falcons’ playoff road and that couldn’t be ignored. There just was a gigantic difference. If Kasay had missed that field goal, the Falcons would have been off next week and then had a home game the week after and if they won that game they would be in the NFC Championship Game, either at New York, or maybe at home against 1 of the lower seeds. But Kasay made the kick, and because of that, the Falcons would be playing next week, on the road, and then even if they won that game they would be on the road again the next week against a team coming off of a bye, and if they somehow won that game they would be on the road in the NFC Championship Game unless they faced the #6 seed. Considering that the Falcons were 7-1 at home this year and 4-4 on the road, considering that many of the other teams in the playoffs also had much better records at home, and considering that the Falcons were nursing some wounds that could have used a week off, the Falcons chances of advancing in these playoffs were sliced and diced by that field goal.

As for the game against the Rams, it was yet another example of the Falcons just finding a way to win. These guys were just winners and that’s all there is to it. But again there were a number of troubling signs that had me very concerned going into the playoffs. The defense had been struggling to defend the pass for most of the season and lately they had been unable to stop the run either. Now with key run stopper Lawyer Milloy ailing, DE Jamaal Anderson injured, and defensive MVP John Abraham suffering from numerous physical ailments, the Falcons defense was looking ordinary at best and like a liability much of the time. Matt Ryan had another shaky performance, continuing a downward trend in his play that had occurred late in the year. The main problem was that he was simply not taking good care of the football. It was possible that he was hitting that rookie wall.

All of these things were realities, but now that the season is over I have more appreciation for this win. I mean, winning when you aren’t playing well isn’t all about luck. Good teams take care of business against bad teams and avoid bad losses. It’s not a given. Look what happened to the Bucs against the Raiders at home on that very day. The Cowboys loss to the Rams cost them a trip to the playoffs. Denver would have made the playoffs if they had avoided either a loss to the Chiefs or at home against the Raiders. The Jets would have reached the playoffs if they had taken care of business against the Raiders, the Seahawks, or San Francisco. The Falcons didn’t have any bad losses. They survived in this final game, coming from behind late in the 4th quarter and hanging on for the victory. It’s easy to get caught up in the present moment and worry about not winning the division or not looking good heading into the postseason. But you have to step back and think about how many times over the years the Falcons have been unable to complete a 4th quarter comeback, or have been unable to hang on for a close win, or have suffered a loss to a bad team, or have been playing meaningless games in November, much less on the final day of the season.

Wild Card Playoffs: @ Arizona, Loss, 24-30.

General Comments: Everybody seemed to be looking forward to the Falcons playoff game on Saturday in Arizona but I couldn’t join in the mirth. Everybody was feeling great about the Falcons and talking about how the Cardinals shouldn’t even be in the playoffs. Everybody was picking the Falcons to win and a lot of people thought it would be easy. This wasn’t just locally, it was nationally. I didn’t see. For one thing, I was struggling to get over the fact that we had come that close to having a bye and homefield and instead we were having to travel across the country to play this week. And I didn’t see what people were so happy about when it came to us drawing the Cardinals on the road in the desert in the first round. I talked about it in my betting lines blog: I was very, very worried. I didn’t like anything about the matchup. For one thing, the Falcons were going to have to play on the road where they were 4-4 on the year as opposed to 7-1 at home. The Falcons were just 3-3 on grass this season as opposed to 8-2 indoors. Conversely, Arizona was only a 3-5 road team but they were 6-2 at home this season. And then there were the matchups on the field. None of them favored us. Arizona was the best passing offense in the League with Kurt Warner and his 3 receivers with over 1,000 yards. The Falcons defense had been consistently torched by the pass most of the year. Arizona was the worst rushing team statistically, but the Falcons defense had struggled to stop the run against all teams in recent weeks, even teams that struggled to run the ball all season like the Rams and Saints. I also knew that Arizona’s rushing stats were a bit skewed by the fact that they often didn’t even try to run the ball. And, I had seen Arizona play in week 17 and I knew that they had played Edgerrin James extensively and that he looked very fresh after riding the bench for the last couple of months. On the other side, people were talking about how the Falcons were going to be able to run all over the Cardinals but I didn’t buy that. I couldn’t figure out why everyone thought Arizona sucked against the run. In fact, they had been solid against the run all season. In addition, teams had been able to slow down Michael Turner at times when they keyed on stopping the run. This had been particularly true on the road. And the thing was, if the Cardinals keyed on stopping the run and decided they were going to make Matt Ryan beat them, that could be a problem. On the road, as a rookie in his first playoff game, Ryan would have to come up with a great performance, and his performance had undeniably suffered over the last few weeks. He had not been taking good care of the ball and Arizona had an opportunistic defense that might be able to take advantage of any mistakes or poor decisions. It seemed to me like Ryan was going up against that rookie wall that they talk about. As a rookie, Ryan had played in all 4 preseason games to get ready for the regular season. He had played every second of all 16 regular season games. Including the preseason, he would be playing his 21st game in the last 22 weeks. This was much more than he had ever played in college, when at most he played 14 games spread out over 5 months. And this was the NFL, not the ACC. And Atlanta’s other offensive leader had also played far more this season than he ever had before. In his 4 seasons in San Diego, Michael Turner had played in almost every game, including all 19 of San Diego’s games in the previous year, but he had made only 1 start, that coming way back in 2004. Last season, Turner had made a career high 114 carries during the regular season and the postseason combined. This season Turner had started 16 games and carried the ball 376 times. That was 102 more carries than he had had in his career prior to this season. Turner had rushed for over 200 yards in the final week of the season, but it was possible that he would begin to feel fatigue in a road playoff game if he kept taking the ball against a defense geared to stop him with no regard for the passing threat. Then there were the injuries the Falcons were dealing with Lawyer Milloy was not close to 100% and without him the Falcons were much weaker against the run. On the other hand, Milloy was not especially good playing the pass and if he wasn’t healthy it would make him even more of a liability against the great Cardinal passing attack. Jamaal Anderson had started the first 15 games of the season but had injured his ankle against Minnesota, had not played against the Rams and was unlikely to play this week. Big John Abraham had missed all of the 2nd half of the Rams game with a thigh injury. That was not good news. Both Todd Weiner and his backup Sam Baker were ailing coming into this game. Grady Jackson and Curtis Lofton were also hurting and wouldn’t start this week. Ovie Mughelli was dealing with a knee injury. To add to everything else, Harry Douglas had suffered a head injury in the last game. This was a lot of guys to have either out or limited in this tough road test. Arizona on the other hand, was as healthy as they had been in a long time. They had been able to rest over the past month. Much had been made of their poor play, but I thought a lot of that had to do with the fact that they had clinched the division a long time ago and were lacking the urgency that they would obviously be playing with in the first home playoff game ever in Arizona. The Falcons had been winning but they really hadn’t played all that well since the Carolina game. Finally there was the psyche of each team going into this game. The Falcons had been overachievers all year long but now all of the sudden they were expected to win. That was going to be a different experience. For the Cardinals, they had been getting absolutely crushed in the media over the last month, with all sorts of people saying they shouldn’t be in the playoffs, questioning their passion and their toughness, and now they were saying that the Cardinals were going to lose at home to these young Falcons. The Cards were going into this game with no one believing in them. They were going into this game with a lot to prove and they were going to have that crowd behind them. I didn’t think we were going to win. I thought it would be a tough game and I was worried it might be bad. I hoped that I would be wrong and at this point nothing was going to surprise me. The Falcons had gotten it done when I had doubted countless times already this year. I was hoping they’d do it again. But I had a bad feeling.

And it turned out to be as a tough a game as I thought it would be. It was a disappointing end to the season, especially because so many had hoped and expressed confidence that the ride would last at least a week longer. It wasn’t the Falcons best performance but they didn’t choke or anything like that. They battled like always and kept it close and the game went down to the wire. There were times when it looked like it was over and that it might get out of hand but then the Falcons would come back and keep themselves alive. In the end we were actually just a few plays away from winning this game. I wasn’t devastated by the loss even though it was a winnable game and a disappointing ending. I just couldn’t be that upset because this season had been so much more than I had ever imagined it would be. The playoffs were icing. I didn’t expect them to win this game. If they had it obviously would have been awesome but when they lost I didn’t feel regret that they could have or should have done more. I just hoped that this game would only mark the end of this first dream season and that this dream season would only be the start of new era of respectability and stability for this franchise.

1st Quarter Comments: Despite the fact that they were the road team, the Falcons had been slight favorites for most of the week leading up to the game, but by kickoff the line had moved and the Cardinals were at that point 1.5 point favorites. The very start of the game went great for the Falcons. The Cardinals won the coin toss and wanted the ball and the Falcons kickoff coverage stopped Arizona’s return at the 12 yard line. Kurt Warner threw incomplete on 1st and 2nd down and then on 3rd and 10 Ben Patrick caught a pass and the Falcons brought him down at the 20, 2 yards shy of the 1st down. The Cards would have to punt after a 3 and out to open the game. Harry Douglas went back and caught the punt at his own 31 and made a nice a return of 21 yards before going out of bounds inside Arizona territory. Matt Ryan dropped back to throw on 1st down and ended up scrambling for a gain of 2. Michael Turner was stopped after a 2 yard gain on the next play to bring up 3rd and 6 from the Cardinals 44. On 3rd down, Ryan dropped back to throw and the protection was good. I don’t know if Ryan really looked at all of his options or if he just locked on Roddy White and decided he was going to go to him no matter what. For whatever reason, Ryan threw to the right side for White and he somehow apparently didn’t see Ralph Brown who was right in front of White standing in the line of Ryan’s throw. Ryan basically threw it right to Brown and he just had to put his hands up and make the catch for the pick on Ryan’s first ever playoff pass attempt. Brown made the pick at the 34 and Roddy was able to bring him down after a gain of just 3 at the Arizona 37.

Well, there went the good start. And this time Arizona’s offense came out and with the Falcon defense guarding against the pass, the Cards decided to run. Edgerrin James had success on the ground right from the start, rushing for 6 yards on 1st down on his first carry, and then running up the middle on the next play for 9 yards and a 1st down inside Atlanta territory. Jonathan Babineaux had a shot on EJ on that play but EJ slipped off him at the line of scrimmage. On the next play, EJ got the ball again and ran up the middle and ran over Erik Coleman for a gain of 6 to the Atlanta 42. On 2nd and 4, Warner handed the ball to EJ again and he headed up the middle but then quickly stopped and turned around and flipped the ball back to Warner for a flea flicker play. Warner had time to throw and he chucked the ball deep down field for Larry Fitzgerald. The Falcons had Fitzgerald double covered. Chris Houston was covering Fitzgerald at the line but he wasn’t big enough to try and hit him right away and play physical and he wasn’t fast enough to keep up with him. Fitzgerald got behind him and Houston was burned. Houston obviously didn’t just quit on the play and he tried to catch up to Fitzgerald but he was basically a non-factor on the play and wouldn’t have been able to do anything unless Warner under threw the ball. However, the Falcons knew Houston couldn’t handle Fitzgerald on his own and safety Lawyer Milloy picked Fitzgerald up as he moved down the field. Fitzgerald cut up to the left and Milloy was right there with him but when Fitzgerald went up for the ball in the left corner of the end zone, Milloy didn’t make a play on the ball. Fitzgerald leapt up with his back facing the back of the end zone and made the catch over his head and brought the bomb down for the TD. It was a brilliant catch. Now, it may not have mattered what Milloy did because Fitzgerald is just that kind of player and he might have pulled it down just like he did even if Milloy had jumped up or made a swipe at his arm or something like that. But you never know. What you do know, is that if you don’t make any play on the ball at all Larry Fitzgerald is going to make the play. It was a great strategy by the Cardinals, wonderfully executed, good blocking, a great pass, and a great catch for 42 yard TD. The Cardinals had the lead, 7-0, with 10:28 to go in the opening quarter.

So the Falcons would not score first and that didn’t bode well. All my fears about this game and all the things that I had worried about were taking place. Ryan had made a mistake, the Cards had been able to run, Warner had had time to throw, and one of the Cards’ big, talented receivers had made a big play for a score. The Falcons 2nd possession began at their own 20 with Turner stuffed for no gain on 1st down. Then Justin Peelle was hit with a false start penalty that made it 2nd and 15 from the 15. The game hadn’t sold out until just the day before and it seemed perhaps the home town fans didn’t take Arizona’s playoff hopes seriously. But they closed the roof, the sellout crowd showed up, and after the early turnover and then flea flicker TD they were fired up and making a lot of noise and they would be a raucous group all day. They waved white towels all game and they were boisterous throughout and their noise was a disruptive force on the Atlanta offense. Audibling was a little bit difficult for the Falcons, as Ryan would have to take time to walk towards different players and shout the calls to them, and then make sure everyone was set, and then Arizona’s defense would be moving around and shifting and faking blitzing, and then before the play clock ran out or somebody on the Falcons line moved, Ryan had to take the snap. Turner picked up 5 on 2nd down to get it back to the original line of scrimmage and then on 3rd and 10 from the 20, Ryan dropped back and his 2nd pass of the game was much, much better, as he threw a strong pass to White who ran an out to the right side and made the catch near the sideline for a gain of 11 and a 1st down at the 31. On 2nd and 10, Turner was hit in the backfield and thrown for a loss of 3 by Karlos Dansby. The Cards called a timeout at the 7:50 mark. On 3rd and 13, Ryan was brought down by Chike Okeafor for a sack and a loss of 2 back at the 26. The Falcons would have to punt. Michael Koenen got off a solid kick and Antrel Rolle caught it at the 25 and tried to return it but Thomas DeCloud brought him down at the 24 for a loss of a yard.

James carried for 5 on 1st down and then Warner dropped back and had plenty of time to throw and fired deep down the left side for Fitzgerald and he made the catch for a gain of 30 to the Atlanta 41. James then ran off right tackle for pickup of 7. The Cards called their 2nd timeout at the 5:08 mark. Things were not looking good. On 2nd and 3 from the 34, the Cards gave the ball to JJ Arrington and Chauncey Davis made a great play, tackling him in the backfield for a loss of 2. On 3rd and 5, Warner threw short over the middle for Anquan Boldin and it fell incomplete. It was now 4th and 5 from the Atlanta 36 and the Cards decided to punt. They pinned the Falcons at their own 7 but at least the defense had stopped the Cards from getting another score. Turner ran for 3 to the 10 and then Ryan threw deep down the left side for Michael Jenkins incomplete to bring up 3rd and 7 from the 10. Ryan took the snap in shotgun but Bertrand Berry got to him and sacked him at the 6 for a loss of 4. The Cardinal defensive players were getting off the ball very quickly and just getting very good jumps on the snap count. This was causing all kinds of problems and it would be a recurring issue during the game. Arizona was called offsides a few times and during the early part of the game there were some times when an Arizona defender looked to have jumped offsides but it wasn’t called. There were also some called and not called false starts by Falcon blockers due to quick jumps by the Arizona defense. There was just a lot of action going on at the point of the snap. After one offsides penalty Chris Collinsworth said Ryan had drawn Arizona offsides by varying his snap count, but it would become obvious as the game wore on that the Cardinal defense had picked up on something that Matty did and they were keying on it. It was Berry who would go on nationally syndicated radio a few days later and reveal that the reason that the Cardinal defenders were able to get such a great burst off the line was that Ryan never varied his snap count during the game from start to finish. As a result the Arizona pass rushers were able to anticipate and jump the snap. Sometimes they didn’t time it right and got called for offsides. But many times during the game they fired off at the right time and it gave them a big advantage on Falcon blockers and consistently disrupted the Atlanta offense. On 4th down Koenen had to punt from the back of the end zone and he got off a beaut. This time Steve Breaston went back and caught it at the Arizona 45 and he tried to advance it but again DeCloud made the play right away, bringing him down right at the 45 for no return.

Though EJ had so far carried the ball 5 times for 33 yards, picking up at least 5 yards on each carry so far, the Cardinals came out on their 4th possession and decided to throw the ball 3 straight times. Warner threw incomplete on 1st and 2nd down and then on 3rd down he threw over the middle for Boldin and if Keith Brooking had turned around he would have had a very good chance for an interception but he didn’t know the ball was coming and it hit him in the back. Still, 4th down and the Cards would punt again. Ben Graham got off another good one and Douglas tried to return this one, making the catch at the 8, but he went nowhere. After another gain of just 2 by Turner to the 10, Ryan fired to the left to White and he gained 10 for 1st down at the 20. Turner was stopped after a 2 yard gain again, but then the Falcons gave it to Norwood up the middle and the quicker back was able to pick up 8 yards for a 1st down at the 30. That was the final play of the 1st quarter. It hadn’t been good but it hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as it could have been. It was only 7-0.

2nd Quarter Comments: On the first play of the second quarter, Turner took the handoff and ran off left tackle for his first nice gain of the game, picking up 13 yards for another 1st down at the 43. This allowed the Falcons to get into their no-huddle offense for the first time in the game. On the next play Ryan threw a quick pass to the left to MJ and he raced up field for a gain of 13 and a 1st down at the Arizona 44. Turner caught a short pass over the middle for a gain of 7 and then ran up the middle for 6 yards and 1st down at the 31. For whatever reason, the Falcons were starting to be able to run the ball a little bit. I know there are other reasons why but I think part of it was that with the Falcons going no-huddle the Cardinals had to react to them instead of Atlanta reacting to Arizona and so they couldn’t time the count as well or shift around. On the next play, Ryan threw a little swing pass out to the left to HD and Roderick Hood read the play and lit HD up at the 31, stopping him cold for no gain. Ryan then threw to the right to Roddy for a gain of 10 to the 21. On the next play, Ryan dropped a pass off to the right to Marcus Pollard at the 20. Pollard had been signed in mid-December, had been active for the final game of the year but hadn’t played, and this was his first action for any team this season. He made the catch but then Adrian Wilson hit him and he fumbled. Luckily Jerious Norwood fell on it immediately at the 20. Turner was stopped for a loss of 1 on the next play and then on 3rd and 10 from the 21 Ryan threw to the left to Jenkins. MJ was wide open but his momentum was carrying him out of bounds a yard shy of the first down. Before he went out, MJ reached the ball across the first down marker but the refs marked the ball at the 12, a yard short of a 1st down. The Falcons called a timeout with 10:03 left in the 2nd but they did not challenge the spot. Even still, I thought they should go for it. It was less than a yard. Either Ryan could just sneak it and likely pick it up or they could give it to Turner up the middle and he might be able to pick it up. But the sneak was a very safe bet. But the Falcons decided to settle for the 30 yard field goal try and Jason Elam kicked it up and good to get the Falcons on the board, 7-3, with exactly 10:00 minutes on the clock in the 2nd quarter.

Koenen’s kick only went to the 8 and the Cards were able to bring the ball out to the 28 to start their 5th possession. Again they decided not to go back to the run and to just come out and huck it. Warner threw incomplete and then threw complete but for a gain of just 1 yard. It was quickly 3rd and 9 from the 29. On 3rd and 9, the Cardinals lined up with 3 receivers to the left, Warner took the shotgun snap, and the Falcons brought Jamaal Fudge on a blitz around the left. There was no one to pick up Fudge, but the Cardinals had the perfect play called. The 3 receivers on the left side had all headed off on different routes and the Falcons defenders got crossed up for just a moment. While one receiver went down field and another headed down field and towards the middle, Anquan Boldin just ran a quick, 5 yard out to the left. Warner saw the blitz coming to his right and immediately threw to the guy right in his line of sight and near him, Boldin. Lawyer Milloy’s first move when the 3 receivers on the left side started their routes was to drop back and towards the middle and then he realized that he had Boldin and Boldin was running a shallow out and he started to move towards him. But he was still way off of Boldin when Warner got the pass off quickly to him at the 33. Had Milloy followed Boldin from the start and not taken those first few steps back and to the middle, he would very possibly have been able to stop Boldin before he got to the 38 for a 1st down. Milloy is a good tackler and even though Boldin isn’t an easy guy to bring down 1 on 1, he could have also maybe forced him out of bounds. Even if Boldin was able to drive or stretch for the 1st down it would have been annoying but it would have been friggin sweet compared to what actually happened on this play. Boldin turned up field quickly and again Milloy was betrayed by a couple of missteps, as he miss judged the situation and took too sharp of an angle towards Boldin for a moment before then running more laterally to try and cut Boldin off. But Boldin just sort of got from point a through point b and got to point c at about the same time that Milloy got to point b. In other words, Boldin was already passed him by the time Milloy reached him laterally. Clearly Milloy had misjudged the play. Lawyer had been suffering from a bad back and had missed the last game and he was clearly not close to 100%. It seemed that this hurt him here and one of the reasons that he so badly misjudged the play might have been that he reacted to the play as if he were at 100% without realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to do what he could normally do. But Lawyer was also slow to realize that he had badly misjudged the situation. There was definitely a couple of steps where if he had dove he could have brought Boldin down from behind at the Arizona 45. But he didn’t realize how dire the situation was until it was too late. He just sort of reached vainly for Boldin and Boldin just sort of blew by him and all of the sudden there was nothing Milloy could do and Boldin was gone down the left sideline, 71 yards for a touchdown. Pretty bad. That made it 14-3 Arizona with 8:58 left in the 2nd quarter. It was an ugly looking play for the Falcons but they actually got a pretty big break due to it as Boldin pulled up lame as he trotted into the end zone and it was soon clear that he had done something to his hamstring. He would give playing a try on Arizona’s next series but then came back out and did not return. So the Cards were without one of their biggest weapons for the rest of the game. But so far it wasn’t looking good for the Falcons, as they were not handling the pressure and magnitude of the playoffs as well as the Cardinals to this point.

The Falcons began their next possession at their own 23. They were now down 14-3. Ryan went to White on passes to the right for 7 yard gains on back to back plays for a 1st down at the 37. Matty threw incomplete on the next two plays. Then on 3rd down, Ryan dropped back, stepped up in the pocket, and with a defender jumping up to block a pass, Ryan put the ball high enough to get it over his hands and dropped a beautiful pass in to MJ on a deep out to the right and Jenks made the catch sliding at the sideline for a 21 yard gain and a 1st down at the Arizona 42. On 3rd and 6, Ryan hit White on the left side for a gain of 8 and a 1st down at the 30. Ryan went to White over the middle for 12 yards and 1st down at the 18. On 3rd and 6, Ryan threw quickly out to the right to Brian Finnerann for a gain of 7 and a 1st and goal at the 7. On the next play, Turner took the handoff and ran off left end and suddenly he was all alone and he just about walked into the end zone for a TD to cut it to 14-10 with 2:55 left in the half.

That was a big score for the Falcons. I was just relieved that they had been able to get back in the game. Now the defense needed to at least hold Arizona to a FG to keep it a 1 score game heading into halftime. Koenen kicked a touchback and the Cards finally went back to James on the 1st play of the possession but the Falcon defense finally shut it down, stopping him for no gain. On 2nd down John Abraham broke up a pass to bring up 3rd and 10 from the 20 with just over 2 minutes to play in the half. On 3rd down, Warner took the snap under center and dropped back. The Falcons got a little pressure up the middle in his face and Warner threw for TE Jerheme Urban who was running across the field from right to left. Warner’s pass was behind Urban and the TE wasn’t expecting it and he reached back but the ball hit off his left shoulder and caromed up in the air. Chevis Jackson had been running across from right to left right behind Urban but he stopped, waited on the ball to come down, and made the catch for the pick and went down at the 23. Now we were in biz. There was 2:03 left in the half. On the first play after the pick, Ryan dumped a pass off to the right to Pollard and he made the catch and this time he picked up 6 yards to the 17. He almost lost the ball again as he went down but he hung on to it. The clock stopped at 1:57 for the 2-minute warning. Turner carried the ball for 4 yards to get the 1st down at the 13. Then Gabe Watson tried to jump the snap count and for once it worked out okay for the Falcons as he was too quick and the refs whistled it dead because he was unabated to the QB and the Falcons now had a 1st and 5 at the 8. After an incompletion the Falcons called their 2nd time out and then Turner ran up the middle and got just a yard. On 3rd and 4 from the 7, Ryan threw a quick out to the right to Roddy and he went out at the 2 for a pick up of 5 and 1st and goal. There was 27 seconds left and the Falcons had just 1 timeout left. On 1st and goal from the 2, Ryan took the snap, faked the handoff, rolled right and dumped the pass up and over to Justin Peelle wide open in the end zone for the touchdown. It was a great call, beautifully executed, and it gave the Falcons the lead for the first time in the game, 17-14, with just 23 seconds left in the half. Well, well, maybe the dream season was going to continue as many had predicted.

The crowd was considerably less noisy at this point. Koenen got off a deep boot on the ensuing kickoff and Arrington decided to take it out from 6 yards deep in the end zone and the Falcons brought him down at the 16. With just 17 seconds left that pretty much kept the Cards from being able to try much here before the end of the half but they did drop back and throw the ball. Warner threw to Fitzgerald but he was brought down for no gain and the clock ran out in the half with the Falcons now ahead by 3, having scored 14 points over the last 3 minutes. Felt pretty good right about now.

3rd Quarter Comments: I couldn’t wait for the start of the 2nd half. The Falcons would be getting the ball first and they were up by 3 and had all the momentum. Offensively the Falcons had found their stride late in the 1st half and the defense had really only been hurt on a pair of really, really big plays. I had not been too confident going into the game and for most of the first half the action on the field reinforced my concerns. But in those last 9 minutes of the 1st half the magic had returned and at this point I was believing. I now felt quite confident that we were going to win this game. We had scored touchdowns on our last 2 possessions of the 1st half and if we scored a TD on the opening drive of the 2nd half it would be a 2 score game.

These were my thoughts as the 2nd half began. Norwood returned the kickoff out to the 27 and Ryan threw complete to Peelle for a gain of 3 on the 1st play of the 3rd quarter. It was at that point that the ability of Arizona’s defenders to anticipate the snap count showed up again and it would never hurt the Falcons more than it did on their 2nd play of the 2nd half. This was, in fact, the biggest play of the game. On 2nd and 7 from the 30, Ryan took the snap under center and turned to hand the ball off to Turner on a dive to the right side. Turner was to take the handoff at the 25 and he would run to the right side inside of the tackle with Ovie Mughelli going before him as a lead blocker. But Arizona left defensive end Darnell Dockett busted through the line and into the backfield so quickly that the play was blown up before the handoff could even be made. Dockett was lined up in front of Falcon right guard Harvey Dahl and he charged around Dahl’s right and beat him badly. Dockett was behind Dahl in an instance and the Falcon lineman just tried to go with him and drive him into the ground. It would have been better if Dahl had just tried to tackle him. Actually he might have been trying that and just wasn’t able to do it until it was too late. Dockett was in the backfield so quickly that Turner stopped in his tracks a step before he reached the 25 where he was supposed to converge on the ball and Ryan’s handoff. Turner tried to take the handoff and avoid a hit at the same time, but instead of going for Turner, Dockett—with Dahl driving into his back and attempting to push him to the ground—went right for the ball. Dockett, Turner, and the ball all met up at the 25 and the ball hit off of Turner’s forearm and popped up a few feet in the air and out in front of him. Safety Antrel Rolle had run up close to the line right before the ball was snapped and as soon as it was hiked he came blitzing into the backfield from around the end, coming at Turner from the RB’s left. Rolle was left unblocked, but ordinarily he would have been no factor because Turner would have hit the hole on the right side before he could get there. But since the play was blown up in the backfield Rolle was suddenly a major factor. He got there at the perfect time, as the ball popped a few feet away from Turner and right to Rolle at the 27. He caught it out of the air, stepped over a pile of bodies, cut left, and headed for the end zone. He was gone as soon as he took the first step. Rolle raised the ball with his right arm and tap danced the final 5 yards into the left corner of the end zone. Ryan didn’t quit on the play and as Rolle pranced the final few yards into the end zone Ryan tried to come and swipe the ball away from him at the goal line. He came up empty but a step or two difference here or there would have made a big difference in my opinion and I think he would have knocked it away and at least given the ref something to look at on a replay. As this play unfolded, I just stared, unable to speak, not wanting to believe what I was seeing. It was one of those rare moments as a fan when you see something so disastrous that the whole thing really does happen in slow motion and you can’t believe that it just happened. It was a fluky looking play to be sure but it wasn’t quite as fluky as a normal bobbled handoff caught out of the air and returned for a TD would be. That’s because Dockett was able to make the play happen because of the great jump he got. Afterwards he would say that he simply jumped the snap count to try and make a play and it worked. It was a disgusting turn of events. In that one play, I went from believing we were absolutely going to win, to knowing we would lose, and from that moment on I never again thought we would win.

I went from sky high and full of hope to resigned to defeat just like that. You just weren’t going to make up for something like that. The Falcons got the ball right back after a touchback but they were now trailing by 4 points. The crowd was of course going berserk now. On 1st down the linebacker came in and blew up a running play again for a loss of 1. On 2nd down, Ryan got a pass out to White for a gain of 11 and a 1st down at the 30, but Dockett had gotten a great jump on the snap again on the play and Dahl had been forced to hold. The play came back and now it was 2nd and 20 from the 10. On 3rd down the Falcons didn’t get the snap off in time and the ball was backed up to the 5. On 3rd and 25 from the 5 I was hoping the Falcons wouldn’t just hand the ball off and try and get Koenen some room. The Cards were going to get great field position; we might as well go deep. That’s what they ended up doing, with Ryan throwing deep down the right side for Jenks but he threw incomplete to make it 4th down. Standing in the back of the end zone, Koenen got off an excellent punt that pushed Steve Breaston back behind the 50, but rather than just call for a fair catch he tried to return it. This was a dangerous decision and Chevis Jackson decided to try for a big play and tried to hit Breaston just as the ball got there to get a fumble. But he got there a moment before the ball and it was obvious. Breaston never even touched it because Jackson knocked him back. A 15 yard penalty for interference moved the ball to the Atlanta 38. I didn’t like the result but I thought it was worth the attempt because if Jackson had timed it right he would have forced a fumble.

Now the Falcons defense had to come up with a stop and hold Arizona to a field goal or they would be pretty much done for. James ran for 5 yards on 1st down. On 2nd and 5, Warner threw deep for Fitzgerald down the left side and missed him. That made it 3rd and 5. This was a huge play. On 3rd down, Warner threw to the left to Fitzgerald but he couldn’t make the catch and there were no flags. Arizona trotted out Neil Rackers. The defense had held. This would be a 51 yard field goal. It was certainly no gimmie. Rackers kicked it long enough but it sailed wide left and no good. This was huge. The Cardinals had given a gift back to the Falcons and it was still just 21-17. I was hoping that the offense would put something together here and get some momentum back. But they couldn’t get going again. We had the ball at the 41 but our running game couldn’t get rolling. Turner carried for a gain of only 1 on 1st down. The offense was built for 2nd and medium and 3rd and short. With Turner getting stopped for minimal gains on 1st and 2nd downs, the offense just couldn’t function. A short pass to the left to Roddy picked up 4 on 2nd down but on 3rd and 5 Adrian Wilson brought pressure and Ryan quickly threw a short pass to White that was broken up. 3 and out. That took away the small amount of hope I got after the missed kick. It just didn’t feel like we were going to win.

After the punt the defense continued to make Arizona pick up ground in short chunks but on the next Cardinal drive they couldn’t make the play on 3rd down. The Falcons had needed to get pressure on Warner in order to stop the Cardinal offense in this game and they weren’t getting it enough. The defense had a chance to get the ball right back but on 3rd and 2 from the 32 Warner threw over the middle to TE Stephen Spach for a 5 yard gain and a 1st down at the 37. Then Arizona had a 3rd and 5 from the 42 and this time the defense made sure everybody was covered up, but they could not get to Warner. He dropped back behind the 35, felt the pocket close, moved out of the pocket, up and to his right, and continued looking down field while running forward. Without ever breaking into more than a gallop, Warner was able to ramble all the way to the 48 before going out of bounds untouched with a 1st down after a gain of 6. This was an infuriating play. Regardless of coverage, I have no idea how the defense allowed that to happen. If the defense was going to let the Cardinals pick up 1st downs with Warner running or throwing to a TE who had 2 catches all season than it wasn’t going to happen for us today. The Cards went back to the ground game and moved into Falcon territory, with Michael Boley fanning on an attempt to tackle James as he picked up 10. On 3rd and 2 from the Atlanta 34, Warner dropped a pass off to EJ and he got the 1st down with ease, taking the ball all the way to the 25 for a 9 yard gain. On 3rd and 3 from the 18, Warner dropped back and fired over the middle to Breaston for a gain of 14 and a 1st and goal at the 4. On the next play, Tim Hightower took the handoff to the left side and the Falcons defense all committed to coming inside, so Hightower just shot it outside and there was no one there. He went in untouched in the left corner of the end zone to make it 28-17 with 2:48 to go in the 3rd.

Ever since the fumble return for a TD on the 2nd play of the 3rd quarter I had expected the Falcons would lose but at this point I accepted that we had lost, and I really watched the rest of the game without ever thinking for a moment that we had a chance to win. It was strange because all the tension of the thing was gone. I had not had this feeling since we fell down 20-7 midway through the 4th quarter in Philadelphia in week 8. After another touchback, the Falcons took over at the 20 now down by 11 and decided to try for a big play on 1st down. Ryan dropped back and got time and White worked a double move on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and got a step on him deep down the right side. Rodgers-Cromartie has such great speed that he can close a gap in an instance and so Matty really needed to chuck the ball and let Roddy go get it if he could and other wise just over throw him. Instead, Matty put way to much air under the ball and badly under threw it. As a result, White basically had to stop and Rodgers-Cromartie was able to push him away down the field, jump up, and make the pick as Roddy brought him down at the Arizona 38. It was just a horrible pass by Ryan, plain and simple. Now Arizona just needed to eat clock but that wasn’t their forte. After running EJ on 1st and 2nd down, the Cards had a 3rd and 5 from the 43. They tried to go no-huddle and catch the Falcons off guard but Warner threw incomplete and Arizona had to punt it back with just 1:33 having come off the clock. The Falcons got the ball back and the quarter ended with them down 11 and carrying no momentum into the final period of play.

4th Quarter Comments: The 4th quarter began with the Falcons facing a crucial 3rd and 6 from their own 20. Ryan dropped back and had to settle for a short throw to the left to MJ and it was broken up to bring up 4th down. Koenen punted and Arizona got the ball at their own 44. On 1st down, James ran for 5 and a 15 yard face mask penalty on Curtis Lofton added on gave the Cards a 1st down at the Atlanta 36. It looked like Arizona was going to put it away. But Chauncey Davis tackled JJ Arrington for a loss of 3 on the next play and then made the tackle on 2nd down to stop Jerheme Urban after a completion and a gain of just 2. On 3rd and 11 from the 37, rather than try for a 1st down or at least get a decent gain to get in position for a field goal, Warner threw deep up the left side and incomplete for Breaston. The Cardinals were keeping Atlanta in it. Again, you never really felt like the Falcons were going to come back and win but in reality they were still right there. The Cardinals punted on 4th and 11 from the 37 and managed to down it at the 6. Somehow the Falcons were called for a hold on this play and the ball was backed up to the 3. The Falcons lined up with 3 wide receivers and Ryan took the snap under center and dropped back to throw. He had time to throw at first but found no one open and didn’t get rid of the ball. Suddenly Antonio Smith crashed in on him from Ryan’s left and got him in a bear hug a yard deep in the end zone. He had his arms around Ryan’s waste his chest in the QB’s back, as if he were trying to give him the Heimlich Maneuver. Smith couldn’t bring him down and Ryan was able to get his arms free and flip a pass out to Turner in the middle of the field at the 4. Turner made the catch at the 4, made a man miss, and then broke it up field to the left. He had the first down easily and would have had much more as there was open space up the left side but the whistle suddenly blew, stopping play, and the refs ruled that Ryan had been “in the grasp” of Smith and it was a safety. This play received little attention but it was a bull shit call. The play was not over, the whistle was not blown, and the players never stopped playing. There was absolutely no reason to stop the play and it should never have been a safety. But that’s how it was ruled, and once again it was a great jump off the ball by the Arizona defensive line and the Arizona pass rushers overpowering the Atlanta protection that caused it. The play actually started with Dockett, who jumped the snap count again from his position at left interior defensive lineman and knocked Atlanta RG Dahl back with such force that center Todd McClure turned all of his attention immediately towards helping Dahl contain Dockett’s surge up the middle. Smith was lined up at right DE and he started out by coming at Atlanta LT Todd Wiener’s left shoulder like he was going to try and come around. This allowed Weiner to hang with him momentarily but then Smith came hard inside and just went past him. Weiner couldn’t just tackle him because it would be a safety if he was called for holding in the end zone. If McClure hadn’t been busy helping Dahl with Dockett he would have been able to come check Smith. As it was, Smith had a straight shot to Ryan. Lastly, Ryan was in the end zone and after he saw no one immediately open he needed to get rid of the ball. He held on to long and looked to be about to try and run forward to get out of the end zone just as Smith was converging. This made it worse because Ryan couldn’t even try and back away, he just had to fall into him and try and make something happen. Although it was a great play by the Cards and a bad play by the Falcons, Ryan and Turner ended up making it work but the refs took it away from them and gave 2 points to the Cards.

The Falcons were now down 30-17 and would have to give the ball to Arizona with less than 13 minutes to play. The free kick was supposed to come from the 20 but a personal foul on Dockett pushed it to the 35 and that allowed Koenen to push Breaston all the way back inside his 10. Breaston muffed the catch and it rolled back to the 3. He picked it up and returned it to the 15 but another personal foul on Arizona meant they would start from their own 8. After a 1st down, a false start and a holding penalty against Arizona further helped Atlanta. On 3rd and 12 from the 20, Warner threw to Fitzgerald and the Falcons stopped at the 26 to bring up 4th and 6. Arizona punted and Harry Douglas made the catch cleanly and picked up 10 yards on the return to give the Falcons the ball at their own 42, down 13, with 7:51 remaining. The Falcons were not quite dead yet. I had no doubt they were going to lose. But in reality they were still alive. The Falcons were quickly faced with a 3rd and 6 from the 46. Ryan dropped back and with the blitz coming he threw off his back foot, tossing a ball up to a well covered MJ at the other 45 and it was very nearly intercepted. It was now 4th and 6 and I hoped to Darwin that Mike Smith wouldn’t consider punting with 7:03 remaining. He didn’t. On 4th and 6, Ryan took the shotgun snap, Arizona came with the blitz again and Ryan threw right out to Norwood in the left flat and he was wide open. J-No made the catch at the 45 and sprinted down the left sideline, picking up the 1st as he crossed into Arizona territory, then stopping and cutting back at the 39 and taking it back towards the inside and going all the way down to the 26 for a pickup of 28 yards. After a couple of short completions, the Falcons finally ran a sneak on 3rd and 1 from the 17 and Ryan picked it up easily. After an offsides penalty and a 5 yard completion to White the Falcons had 1st and goal at the 5. Matty took the snap and made a quick lateral pass to Roddy on the right side and he made the catch and then ran ahead and scored easily in the right corner of the end zone to make it a 1 score game with 4:15 remaining. The Falcons were still there, down just 6 points, 30-24.

I tell you this: I still didn’t think we were going to win or that we would really even come close, but I was again proud of this team for the way they battled and handled the situation. The Falcons decided to kick it deep and Arizona started at their 20 with 4:10 on the clock. We had all of our timeouts left, and typically, Arizona decided not to try and run out the clock the old fashioned way. Warner faked the handoff to EJ on 1st down and dropped back. The Falcons actually got good pressure in his face but he threw down field for Larry Fitzgerald who was running a stop route and coming back to Warner. Chris Houston was covering him as best he could and was engaged with Fitzgerald as the ball got there but Fitzgerald just reached up and hauled it in. I don’t know what the Falcons could have done to stop it. The play picked up 15 yards and a 1st down at the 35. On the next play EJ was stopped for no gain and the Falcons called their 1st timeout with 3:18 remaining. On 2nd down the Cards again refused to just run it. Warner gave a token play action fake and then dropped back into a huge pocket. He had no pressure on him what so ever and he just sat back and waited for someone to get open. Finally he found Breaston coming across from right to left and fired a strike to him. Erik Coleman was right there with him and he dove and just missed breaking it up but the pass by Warner was perfect and right on time and Breaston caught it in stride at the Atlanta 49, stayed on his feet and took it all the way down to the 40 for a 25 yard pass completion. The Cards took all the time off that they could and then handed to Hightower who was stopped after a gain of 2. The Falcons called their 2nd timeout with 2:21 on the clock. It was 2nd and 8 at the Atlanta 38. If the Falcons were able to stop the Cards right here Arizona would still have a shot at a FG that would ice the game for sure. But it was at that point that the Cards went with a risky play to try and put the game away and it back fired. All year long the Falcons had counted on Big John Abraham to come through with a big play when they needed it but due to injuries and good work by the Cardinals offense he had been limited to only 1 tackle so far in the game. He had really been a non-factor. But he was about to show up and make a big play. On 2nd and 8, the Cards lined up with Fitzgerald wide left, Breaston in the slot to the right, Hightower in the backfield, and then they swung a receiver around behind Hightower as if he might catch a pitch right before Warner snapped it. Warner faked the handoff to Hightower and that receiver in motion continued around the left end to block. Steve Breaston came on an end around from right to left. The Cards thought they could catch the Falcons with the perfect play here to put it away and it might have worked if John Abraham had charged up field and headed Breaston off right after he took the handoff back at the 45. Big John dropped him right away, throwing him down all the way back at midfield. Forward progress was ruled at the 46 for a loss of 8 and the Falcons called their final timeout with 2:17 on the clock. If the Falcons could hold here they would either force the Cards to try a long field goal, punt, or go for it on 4th down. They were likely going to have a shot if they could keep from totally fucking up here. With 2:17 on the clock, the Cards faced a 3rd and 16 at the 46. They came out with double tight ends, a receiver split wide on either side, and Hightower in the backfield. The Falcons kept all 3 linebackers in coverage and just sent the 4 down linemen. The Cardinals released both tight ends out for the pass and they were able to keep pressure off of Warner with just the OL. Warner gave a token fake to Hightower and then fired down the middle of the field for Stephen Spach who was somehow wide the fuck open. With no defender within 10 yards of him, Spach made the catch in the middle of the field at the 30 yard line and held on to the ball as he went down at the 23 after a gain of 23 on 3rd and 16. Ball game. That took it down to the 2-minute warning, and with the Falcons out of time outs and Arizona having a fresh set of downs, that was all she wrote. On the play it was a nice pitch and catch by Warner and Spach, good blocking by the line, and a nice play call by the Arizona staff, but more than anything it was just a horrible play by the Falcons. Sad to say, it was a terrible play by long time Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking in particular. The Falcons 3 LB’s dropped back into pass coverage on the play. Curtis Lofton had responsibility for anything in front of him over the middle. Keith Brooking was the outside LB to Lofton’s left. Spach was lined up as a tight end on the right side of Arizona’s line. When Spach released out and went down field for a pass, Brooking locked on him and began to follow him down the field in coverage. This was exactly what he was supposed to do. Warner just gave a teeny little half-assed fake to Hightower up the middle and then the RB turned and faced Warner about 2 yards past the line of scrimmage to be an option if Warner wanted to dump the pass off to him. Lofton had that covered for sure, it was no threat. But for some reason Brooking turned away from Spach, left him completely, and took a few hard charging steps in back towards Hightower after the little halfhearted fake. Spach just kept drifting downfield and all of the sudden he was all alone. The only thing that could have saved Atlanta at that point would have been for Warner to double clutch or make a poor throw simply because it was so easy. But Warner simply zipped over the heads of the drawn in linebackers and when Spach made the catch at the 30 he already had enough for the 1st and he would run for 5 more yards before someone touched him. It was an awful play by Brooking and there were no doubt fans everywhere cursing him. Since I had given up on the game a long time ago my reaction was just to feel really badly for an old Falcon who had served the team well for many years, but who was probably at the end of him time, and who had made a very, very obvious bad mistake at a very bad time. When looking at the play, the only possible explanation is that Brooking thought that the Cards were just running the ball on a delay handoff up the middle against a zone defense playing back against the pass. Considering this, you have to credit the Cards’ ability to run the ball with success over the course of the game because Brooking seemed concerned with the run. And it looked like he saw the fake out of the corner of his eye and that may have made it a lot more convincing than it was to anyone who was looking right at it. Anyway, that play clinched the win. Warner downed it 3 times and the clock ran out with the Falcons losing it 30-24. The playoff run was over after just one game. The dream season had come to an end in the desert.

Numbers: In this game the numbers were about what you would expect based on the way things went, with the Cardinals controlling the game for much of the day. The Falcons managed just 250 yards of total offense, while the Cards amassed 357 yards of offense, outgaining the Falcons by 107 yards. The Falcons did have 20 1st downs, 5 more than the 15 achieved by the Cardinals. The Cardinals outgained the Falcons by 81 yards in the air, throwing for 271 passing yards while holding Atlanta to 190 yards passing. Arizona held the Falcons to just 60 yards on the ground while the Cards rushed for 86 yards, outgaining the Falcons by 26 yards on the ground. The Falcons rushed 24 times for 60 yards, averaging just 2.5 yards a carry. The Cardinals ran the ball 28 times for 86 yards, averaging 3.1 yards per carry. The Falcons had 4 rushing plays go for lost yards and gave up 3 sacks. The Atlanta defense stopped 2 Arizona rushing plays for negative yards but did not record a single sack. The Falcons lost the turnover battle, 1-3, making 1 interception while throwing 2 INT and losing a fumble. The Cards returned a fumble for a TD and recorded a safety. The Falcons were 6 for 14 on 3rd downs and 1 for 1 on 4th down; Arizona was 6 for 15 on 3rd down conversions. Penalties and time of possession were essentially equal.

Matt Ryan had to throw the ball more than the Falcons likely planned and he looked great at times, but overall he looked as shaky as he had during the last month or so of the season. He was 26 of 40 for 199 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT. He was also charged with a lost fumble for the busted handoff that Rolle took for 6. Ryan was sacked 3 times, once for a safety. Michael Turner never got going. He rushed 18 times for just 42 yards and a TD, averaging 2.3 yards per carry. Roddy White caught 11 passes for 84 yards and a TD. Jenkins grabbed 5 passes for 51 yards. Justin Peelle caught Ryan’s other TD pass. Jason Elam was good on his only FG attempt. Koenen punted 5 times, averaging 42.4 yards a punt, and the Falcons allowed -1 yards returned. Chevis Jackson came up with the Falcons only INT of Kurt Warner. Warner was 19 of 33 through the air for 271 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT. He was not sacked in the game. Edgerrin James carried the ball 16 times for 73 yards, averaging 4.6 yards a pop. Hightower carried 6 times for 23 yards and a TD, averaging 3.8 yards a carry. Larry Fitzgerald grabbed 6 passes for 101 yards and a TD. Anquan Boldin made only 2 catches but they went for 72 yards and a TD. Antrel Rolle had a fumble recovered and returned for a TD. Ralph Brown and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie each had an interception. Antonio Smith had a sack for a safety; Bertrand Berry had a sack; and Chike Okeafor had a sack. Darnell Dockett forced the fumble that was returned by Rolle for a TD. Neil Rackers missed his only FG try. Ben Graham punted 6 times for an average of 39.8 yards a kick and pinned 4 inside the 20 with no touchbacks.

Final Comments: Well, this was a disappointing ending to be sure. Only 1 team finishes the season happy. No matter how far a team exceeds expectations it’s always disappointing when they come up short of a championship. No matter what happened, unless the Falcons won the Super Bowl, the final game was going to be disappointing. This particular loss was disappointing for several reasons besides the fact that the dream season was finally over and it didn’t end in a world championship. By this point, expectations had changed, and amazingly the end actually came sooner than was expected. I didn’t think the Falcons would win this game but there was such a confidence surrounding the team and there were so many people who did expect the Falcons to win that it didn’t really matter what individual people thought anymore, it had been decided: the Falcons were supposed to win this game. And this loss was tough to swallow because it was a game so many felt we should have won going in, and as it played out, we most certainly could have won it. It was a rough final game because we didn’t play our best and I for one will always feel like if that one fluky play (the fumble return for a TD) hadn’t happened we would have won the game. We played in the first game of this year’s NFL playoffs and they’ve been annoying to watch because you see how far we could have gone. Then you think about how close things were to being totally different. If the Panthers hadn’t gone down and kicked a game winning FG in the final seconds against the Saints we wouldn’t have even been playing this weekend and we would have been playing at home the next week and (as it turned out) if we won that game we would have been hosting the Championship. And while the Panthers won the division fair and square because they had a better record than we did, I couldn’t shake the feeling all along that we should never, under any circumstance have had to go on the road to play Arizona. We had a much better regular season than they did. And if that game isn’t in Arizona, there’s no way we lose it. Think of how big a deal the crowd was and the snap count. That doesn’t happen in the Dome. But when you look at it, the loss at Arizona and the Falcons’ performance wasn’t bad. They lost on the road with a rookie QB. They kept the game competitive and came back on several occasions. They had nothing to hang their heads about and as a fan you could be proud of the effort they gave and the way they played in that big spot for a young team. There may actually be something that comes out of the loss that will help for the future. I don’t think the team was over confident in any way but I think that if the Falcons had won this game and continued along in the playoffs and then lost later to a better team or something it might have continued to raise the expectations for next season. Along with that, it might have made things seem better than they are. What I mean is that this loss did kind of bring everybody back down to Earth and the last memory of this season will be a disappointing loss in the first round of the playoffs. This should help to keep things in a realistic perspective heading into next season when it will be hard to equal the success of this year. In addition, I think that this loss showed some of the weaknesses that had been covered up during the season by the low expectations going into this season, the easy schedule, some good breaks, and a lot of other things. This should help the team stay grounded and focused on being a consistent winner moving forward. Finally, though we did lose this playoff game, we all as Falcons fans know that losing in the playoffs is a whole hell of a lot better than not even getting to the playoffs.