Let’s not get carried away just yet. But….
The final score of the Falcons’ 39-28 win over the Cowboys Sunday is impressive enough. Dallas came in with the third-ranked defense in the NFL. And even at less than full-strength, they’re still a very talented team.
But the Falcons won this game after an abysmal start. When last year’s team started a game in the same way, the outcome was never in doubt. They never amped up enough effort to make a spirited comeback.
On the first play from scrimmage, Joseph Randle dashed through a gaping hole cleared by rookie left guard La’el Collins. The hole opened so fast you wondered if the Falcons had the requisite number of defenders on the field.
Brandon Weeden then found Terrance Williams for a nice gain down the left sideline, exacerbated by a facemask penalty called on Robert Alford. Randle then covered the final 37 yards on a nifty run, and the Cowboys led that easy, 7-0.
The Falcons’ offense matched that blitzkrieg by dispatching Devonta Freeman on a pair of 1-yard runs, and allowing Matt Ryan to be sacked.
Much stiffer resistance met the Cowboys’ second possession. This time, it took Dallas eight plays to traverse 77 yards and up the score to 14-0.
The Falcons could not possibly have started any worse.
“We clearly got punched in the mouth,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told ESPN.com. But here’s the interesting part, the part that may set this team apart from its immediate predecessors. Quinn added, “We were looking to respond. Dallas certainly had us reeling, all the way through, and we had to battle like crazy to get back in it.”
The battle back began immediately, with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. They managed to overcome several poor throws by Ryan, who seemed intent on aiming passes at receiver’s ankles.
But the Falcons’ defense, resembling the Sieve of Smith, let the Cowboys pull two touchdowns ahead twice more in the half. The Falcons could not stop the Dallas running game and found it impossible to cover any receiver wandering in the area five yards beyond the line.
Dallas scored 28 first-half points with an offense that had its two best players on the bench. That a unit without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant could score a point a minute spoke to the hideous half of football played by the Falcons’ defense.
All of which made the second-half shutout they threw doubly amazing.
Randle had 92 yards rushing on 10 carries at the half. He finished with 87 yards on 14 carries.
The Cowboys ran the ball 16 times for 131 yards in the first half. In the second half, they ran the ball five times and lost four yards.
The offense that gained 295 yards in 30 plays in the first half ground to a halt in the second. Dallas amassed 52 yards in 19 plays.
Meanwhile, Kyle Shanahan’s offense found itself. Appearing to finally be growing comfortable in his zone blocking scheme, the line gave Freeman plenty of holes and Ryan plenty of time to throw.
Freeman ran as hard as any Falcon back in memory. He entered the game with career highs of 12 carries, 38 yards and one touchdown. Sunday he rambled for 141 yards on 30 carries with three touchdowns. He also caught five passes for 52 yards, including a sparkling catch and run to set up the field goal that ended the first half.
Julio Jones has more receptions than anyone in NFL history through three games. Credit Shanahan with utilizing his unique skills by moving him all over the field.
On his 45-yard touchdown in the third quarter, Jones was lined up as a tight end, though standing and split out about two steps to the left. He ran a short post unmolested, then sprinted down the right sideline after the catch.
His final catch ended the scoring. From the Dallas 2-yard line, Jones was split wide left, about three yards behind the line. At the snap, he sprinted right, behind the line, and cut into the end zone, right in front of Ryan, who had looked left then bootlegged right. The play, so perfectly designed and beautifully executed, clinched the win.
After a punt to open the second half, the Falcons drove to three straight touchdowns: 87 yards in six plays; 89 yards in 11 plays; and 62 yards in 11 plays. The final two drives ate up 12:58.
“When you are rolling on a third down, and you’re running the ball effectively, that’s when you get into a mode offensively where you think, ‘No matter what happens, we’re going to find a way!’” Ryan told ESPN.com.
Suddenly, the new coach and his new team are 3-0. Too early to get excited, even over a game like this one.
But don’t forget that the last two Falcons teams to start 3-0 ended up in the NFC Championship game.