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Falcons make their statement with big stop


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ATLANTA – Jason Cole -

It is an overstatement to say that one play can crystallize the essence of an NFL season and propel a team to championship glory.

But sometimes one play is enough to answer an overstatement.

The Atlanta Falcons survived for a 27-21 victory over the plucky Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday with a stop on fourth-and-inches at the goal line. That play, and the NFL-best 6-2 record (currently tied with three other teams) it has left the Falcons with at the midpoint of their season, was enough to drive the locals into a nice bit of hysteria.

It also put Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris in his place. After mouthing off that his team was the best in the conference (it was really just a confidence-boosting ploy, so cut him a bit of slack), the Bucs tried to back up Morris’ big talk. From a long kickoff return that set up their first touchdown to another for a score and the near-miss on fourth down at the end, the 5-3 Bucs hung tough in a game where they were down 14-0 early in the second quarter and 27-13 late in the third.

The Bucs have a really nice team that is developing quickly and should be a force in another year or so. However, it still is a long way from here to there … even when you have a seemingly point-blank shot to reach your destination.

That shot came with 2:44 remaining on the fourth-and-inches play. The Bucs were just outside the Atlanta 1-yard line, inches from a possible first down and less than four feet from possibly taking the lead. Tampa Bay lined up in a heavy run package featuring two tight ends and 247-pound, undrafted rookie LaGarrette Blount in I-formation.

Common sense might have pointed to the Bucs keeping the ball in the hands of Josh Freeman(notes), their gifted second-year quarterback who also happens to be 6-foot-6, 248 pounds – especially when you consider that Freeman has engineered a freakish six fourth-quarter comebacks in his young career. Between a sneak or a rollout with run/pass option, Freeman would seem to have been a better bet.

Instead, the Bucs made this about man-on-man, hand-to-hand combat football.

Right now, the Bucs aren’t quite ready for that. Tampa Bay ran Blount over the right side. The Atlanta line, led by defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson(notes), caved-in the blocking, leaving Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud(notes) sprinting at Blount. DeCoud showed that 192 pounds moving at full speed beats 247 pounds at chop-step pace.

“This is a man’s game and you have to make plays like that to show your confidence,” Anderson said. “That kind of play, you have no idea what that means in our game, to come out on top with your backs against the wall, them needing a couple of inches. That’s everything. That sends you sky high.”

Prior to the defense making its crucial stop, there was a sense of calm on the sideline.

DeCoud (left) and his teammates deny Blount.

(Dale Zanine/US Presswire)

“Even while all that was going on, I was talking to [Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan(notes) and saying, ‘It’s OK, whatever happens we’re all right.’ ” Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) said. “That’s how our team is right now. We’re playing the situations as they come and not panicking. We weren’t all worried. They could have scored a touchdown there and it would have been fine.

“With two minutes left, we would have gone down and gotten a field goal. We were fine. But the way it turned out, we made that play and we didn’t have to [come back].”

In that regard, Gonzalez said this Atlanta team has more composure than any he has ever been part of in his 14 seasons. That includes the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs, who opened 9-0 and finished 13-3 but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in a classic shootout with the Indianapolis Colts.

“Even that team, as good as we were – and we led the league in scoring that year – I never felt like we could handle this kind of situation,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t have the defensive players that we have here. We have guys on this team who can really get it done. Guys who can handle themselves in a rough game.”

This game was rough in that the Falcons dominated in many ways but killed themselves with mistakes, such as the two aforementioned kickoff returns and a busted coverage that turned an intermediate pass from Freeman to Mike Williams into a 58-yard score.

“We went about our business,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “I love the effort, [but] we’ve got a lot of things that we’ve got to get fixed, specifically on special teams.”

In other words, the Falcons handled themselves with composure. They just had too many situations to handle. That’s why Smith sidestepped a question about whether his team is now the NFC’s best.

“No, I am not prepared to say that at all,” Smith said. “We are the best team of the two teams that played [sunday]. We’ll get an opportunity to play them again down the road. You get what you earn in this league and we earned a win [sunday].”

But really, that was it. To say anything more about the win would be an overstatement.

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“We went about our business,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “I love the effort, [but] we’ve got a lot of things that we’ve got to get fixed, specifically on special teams.”

I'll bet Armstrong is shaking in his shoes right about now, especially being that he has a short week to prepare for Baltimore.

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