When someone calls you out, issues a challenge, dares you to be a man, it’s time to step up and make a stand.
Unless you’re the Atlanta Falcons.
In that case, your response is to roll over and play possum. Let ‘em run all over you. Don’t even swing back. Just turn the other cheeks and run away to play another day.
That’s what was so disturbing about the Falcons’ lay-down, 30-20 loss to Carolina on Sunday. It’s not that they lost to a team that had won only a quarter of its games. Or a division rival.
The Falcons knew exactly what was coming, and they played with all of the assertiveness of Caspar Milquetoast.
When the Falcons came from behind to beat the Panthers, 30-28, in Week 4, Matt Ryan chose to punctuate the moment by running around the field, screaming like a banshee.
Which is fine. Sometimes we’d like to see the Falcons quarterback show a little more fire, a little more emotion.
But when you disrespect an opponent like that, especially one that you play twice a year, there will come a time when that opponent comes back looking for respect.
That’s what this game was all about for Carolina. Defensive end Charles Johnson made the Panther’s feelings known to the Charlotte Observer last week. “I think we marked this day down since. He had all due respect to say that. Hey, you got to come in our house now.”
The other defensive end, Greg Hardy, showed much less restraint. “There’s a point where you know you’re better than someone,” he told the Observer. “I want them to go home sick in the stomach, mad about life, a couple depression issues, all types of things. It’s going to be a long day from my point of view. I’m coming.”
Make no mistake; the Falcons heard the saber rattling. “They were giving us trash talk all week,” tight end Tony Gonzalez told Jonathan Jones of the Observer on Sunday. “We knew they were going to come out here and play hard. It’s kind of their playoffs.
“I’ve been in that position before, where you’re just like, OK, we’re just going to go out there and spoil everybody’s experience.
“And they did.”
Thoroughly. Carolina took the opening kickoff, held the ball for more than seven minutes, ran 11 plays, drove 77 yards, and took a 7-0 lead. En route, they converted three third downs, the last a 25-yard touchdown pass on third-and–4.
The Falcons responded with a modest five-play, nine yard drive.
Carolina then drove 72 yards in 17 plays, keeping the ball for over nine minutes. The only thing the Falcons alleged defense did right was stopping the drive on third and 6 on the six-yard line.
The Falcons responded to the 10-0 deficit with another nine yard drive. This time it only took three plays.
Carolina dared an 11-1 team to come into its house and play hardball. The Falcons responded to the challenge with 18 yards on eight plays, while allowing Carolina to amass 149 yards on 28 plays. Not to mention the time of possession differential: 4:49 to 16:28.
“We talked about coming out and trying to start fast,” Ryan said in his post-game press conference. “And we didn’t do that.”
Talk’s cheap. Carolina came to play.
“There was a lot of frustration going on between them,” Johnson told Joseph Person of the Observer. “You could just tell. I don’t think they came to play. We did. We were hungry. I think we wanted it more than they did.”
Go ahead. Dare any Falcon to argue.
But are we making too much of this? After all, the Falcons are still 11-2, still have the best record in the NFC, and they did clinch the division championship last week. Aren’t they entitled to a little letdown?
In the normal course of events, perhaps.
But when you’ve mouthed off and been called on it, you’ve absolutely got to back it up. Instead, the Falcons decided to show their soft side.
You know, the side that shows up when it’s do or die, put up or shut up: playoff time. The side that showed up last January when they couldn’t make a single yard when they needed to — time and again — while being manhandled by the Giants.
That’s what was so alarming about this loss. If the Falcons plan to actually win a playoff game this year, they need to develop a mean streak.
The Giants visit this Sunday.
Let’s see if the Falcons accept the challenge.