If history, both recent and ancient, prevents the average Atlanta resident from screaming, “Super Bowl, baby!” and then running and doing a cannonball into the sports fan’s dangerous Pool of Full Commitment, it’s understandable.
It’s four games into the season. The Falcons’ 3-1 record doesn’t guarantee anything other than those who projected them to start 0-6 with a difficult schedule look pretty silly now.
But with an offense that has made opponents look lost and uncoordinated in the past three weeks and a defense that Sunday had easily its best moments of the Dan Quinn regime, is it safe to assume anything?
“What it says is that we’re a different team than last year — you can write that,” said end Dwight Freeney, a 36-year-old who at times seemed to be playing with 26-year-old legs Sunday. “This is not 2015. I don’t care what happened last year. I don’t remember what happened last year. I wasn’t here last year. A lot of these players in this locker room weren’t here. New team. New attitude.”
New Falcons? Maybe.
It’s too early to jump, only one-quarter of the way through the season. But the results give the sense this team just might be legitimate. In a short week following a Monday night win over New Orleans, the Falcons followed that up with more pyrotechnics, jumping to a 34-10 lead before downshifting and settling for a 48-33 win at the Georgia Dome.
Matt Ryan set a franchise record for passing yards: 503.
Julio Jones set a franchise record for receiving yards: 300.
Carolina set a franchise record for consecutive moronic defensive coverages. It left Jones single covered for much of the day, mostly with third-year pro Bene Benwikere.
“They put the young corner on me man-to-man,” Jones said. “If they would’ve two-manned me or cheated a safety over to me, Matt would’ve made great reads and hit the other guys who were open. But they singled me.”
And you were fine with that, right?
“I love it.”
The Panthers are 1-3. They don’t look close to the same team that went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl last season, or the one pegged as an overwhelming favorite to win the NFC South again.
Somebody in the Georgia Dome sound booth couldn’t help but take a little shot. After cornerback Robert Alford sealed the win with a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:14 left, the Migos’ rap tune, “Look at my dab,” was played over the PA system.
It’s Cam Newton’s signature song. Or at least used to be when he had something to celebrate. He hasn’t looked the same since getting physically pounded in the season opener against Denver and he left Sunday’s game with a concussion.
The Panthers’ defense also looks weaker, particularly in pass coverage without Josh Norman, who left for a lifetime of riches in Washington.
But the Falcons have been blow-torching everybody. They’ve scored 128 points in the past three games. Their 571 yards against Carolina (another franchise record) gives them 1,541 in that span.
They had touchdown drives of 71, 98, 99, 92 and 75 yards. If this game was a boxing match, they would have stopped it on cuts.
Matt Ryan’s past three starts: 73.2 percent competitions for 1,139 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He also threw deep several times, with four completions measuring 42 to 75 yards.
So much for the “weak” arm.
“I don’t really listen to that stuff,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of doing, and our guys know what we’re capable of doing.”
If you were inclined to downplay the performances against Oakland and New Orleans, what now?
Quinn’s first Falcons’ team started 6-1, only to descend to a non-playoff finish. So it’s natural he is going to be cautious. But he reiterated a familiar theme when asked what conclusions can be drawn after four games.
“You can feel the connection amongst the players,” he said. “We’re still a work in progress in some spots. But the players keep attacking and going back at it.”
This was on the way to being the most impressive win of the Quinn era, or at least other than last year’s late-season upset of the then-unbeaten Panthers (20-13). But Carolina scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives, two led by backup Derek Anderson, to twice cut a 24-point lead to 34-26 and 41-33.
But Ryan’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Jones suggested Carolina wouldn’t be able to match the Falcons, and Alford and closed the door.
Does this year feel different than 2015?
“We were on the verge last year of getting to this point,” Jones said. “But it’s a lot tighter now. We play for each other.”
The early view is good.