It is still kind of funny to refer to the Atlanta Falcons as the “first-place Falcons,” but even as you chuckle, realize this team has as good a chance as its main competitor to win the pathetic NFC South.
The New Orleans Saints are tied with the Falcons, but Atlanta’s win in week one over its arch-enemy gives it the advantage. It seems the division will come down to the Falcons’ visit to New Orleans in a few weeks.
But the Falcons’ win over Arizona on Sunday was significant for several reasons. First, the return of safety William Moore is huge. Moore played well against the Cardinals, and he immediately regained his spot as the leader of the defense. Moore is probably Atlanta’s best player on defense, and as a veteran with a lot of young players around him, his presence cannot be overlooked.
“We’ve missed him,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said Sunday. “He’s a real good football player. When he attacks the ball and there is contact, there is usually somebody going backwards.”
“It was great to have Willie Mo back out there bringing the energy on the back end and just getting out there and having fun,” defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux said.
Every NFL team has to deal with injuries, but Moore was probably the one player on defense the Falcons could ill afford to lose for a while. As they now play Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Carolina in the final four games, Moore’s return could allow the Falcons to at least have a chance of occasionally stopping their opponents.
And while injuries have again been a story for this Falcons team, we are starting to see some cohesion on the rebuilt offensive line. Quarterback Matt Ryan is still not out of danger, at least not completely. But he seems to have more confidence the new guys will protect him.
Center James Stone was a non-drafted free agent out of Tennessee. He’s basically the third-stringer forced to start because of season-ending injuries to Joe Hawley and Peter Konz. Ryan has been complimentary of how Stone has handled the tough assignment of protecting a franchise quarterback.
Sunday’s game against Arizona was the fifth game in a row that Stone started in the new-look offensive line. Ryan Schraeder has been at right tackle, with normal starters Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah at guard and rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle. It shouldn’t be a surprise they are finally playing better with several games together under their belt.
That probably helped Steven Jackson run for his Falcons career-high yardage Sunday. The running game is still suspect, but as long as the line protects, Ryan it’s doing its job.
Atlanta is what it is -- a 5-7 team that lost two games (to Detroit and Cleveland) it shouldn’t have lost. But this team still has talent, and after the expected loss in Green Bay next week, the Falcons should have a solid chance of winning the NFC South.
It won’t be pretty, and the record might be below .500, but this team has a shot. The Falcons are hanging on by a thread, and it will be a shame if they don’t make it to have to look back on those bad losses to the Lions and Browns. But give Smith credit for having his team play its most complete game of the season against a pretty decent Cardinals team last week.
The Falcons just have no room for error, even though we know what will probably happen against the Packers. Once that is over, the Falcons will have a short leash.
And it will, most likely, simply come down to the game against the Saints on Dec. 21. That might be the key for a most unusual season where the best of the not-so-great teams in the division must survive at some point.
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