The Falcons put a new twist on their roller-coaster season Sunday in Charlotte. This time, they rode to the coaster’s extremes in a single game.
Perhaps that’s what a season of good games and bad games does for you. By perfecting inconsistency, a team can compress wild swings into the confines of a single game, instead of letting them play out over two weeks.
Such was the Falcons 31-23 win over Carolina. They lost the first half, 23-7, in truly desultory fashion. They annihilated the Panthers in the second, 24-zip.
Watching these guys has been like watching the stock market. We should be used to it by now.
But we all have memories. We remember the 13-3 Falcons of 2010. What a model of consistency that crew was!
They didn’t beat themselves. They rarely incurred penalties. They imposed their ball-control, time-of-possession, power running game on every opponent week after week. We knew just what to expect.
With this year’s crew, we haven’t a clue. These guys change faster than the wolfman under a full moon. Nevermind game to game or half to half. These guys go from sublime to ridiculous from drive to drive.
Sunday’s game opened with a conversion on third-and-5.
But Roddy White freed himself for the catch by pushing off his defender. On the do-over, the Falcons failed to gain the first down.
Next drive: 10 plays, 62 yards, 5:26 off the clock, including four catches by White, culminating in his 5-yard touchdown catch.
On their next drive, and we use the term as loosely as possible, Matt Ryan was tackled for a safety.
Not to be outdone, the Falcon defense opened with a sack of Cam Newton, and a quick three-and-out.
Next drive: 9 plays, 74 yards, 5:26, ending with a touchdown pass from Newton to Jeremy Shockey.
The Falcons ended their first half with these drive results: punt, safety, punt, punt, punt. The same crew rang up 24 second half points, scoring on four of six possessions. The other two? Three-and-outs.
The defense, which allowed scoring plays of 74 yards on a simple sweep and 44 yards on a simple screen pass in the second quarter, pitched a shutout in the second half. The defense also forced two turnovers against a Carolina offense that hadn’t turned the ball over in its last 30 possessions.
So much for consistency.
And let’s not forget about Julio Jones. After flat-out dropping the tying touchdown pass on the game’s final play a week ago, he rebounded with a couple more drops Sunday.
But come the fourth quarter, it was Jones who scored the go-ahead touchdown, and Jones who broke Ryan’s final pass into a 75-yard score.
How to explain the inconsistency? Here’s one theory: changes along the offensive line.
The Falcons lost right guard Harvey Dahl to free agency prior to the season. Dahl, universally recognized as a player with, shall we say, an attitude, gave the Falcons line an identity.
But the problems go beyond Dahl’s departure. Todd McClure missed games at center for the first time since the Clinton administration. Sam Baker gave way to Will Svitek at left tackle.
Garrett Reynolds, who took over Dahl’s spot, was replaced by Joe Hawley, who had played center while McClure was out, and who was replaced (briefly) by Baker in the first half Sunday. Got all that?
To play the game the way the Falcons would like requires a smooth-functioning offensive line. The unit must work as one to achieve success. Running the ball and controlling the clock against professional defenses isn’t an easy task.
Without the line doing its job consistently, the Falcons get away from what they do best, and as players try to pick up the slack and try to do too much, mistakes and penalties ensue.
Exhibit A: the New York Giants. The G-men have long played the power running game which the Falcons have recently emulated. The Giants, likewise, have suffered through their own wildly erratic season. Incredibly, they’ve had their most trouble running the ball, of all things.
Sunday night, the Giants played the same offensive line for the second game in a row for the first time all season. Eli Manning threw for 400 yards, Brandon Jacobs ran for 101, and the Giants beat the Cowboys in a must-win game.
If the second half of the Carolina game is the start of a run of consistency for the Falcons, the offensive line must lead the way.