Falcons take opening statement in strideBy Len Pasquarelli
ATLANTA -- For a team that spent most of the warm-ups talking smack, then turned the rhetoric into an ugly rumble that resulted in the pregame ejections of two key players, the Atlanta Falcons were an unusually measured bunch as they contemplated the big-picture ramifications of Monday night's gutsy victory here over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Some statement games, apparently, require only modest statements afterwards.
And so in contrast to all the bombast they preceded this much-anticipated rematch of last year's NFC championship game, a back-alley meeting of two teams that clearly don't like each other very much at all, civility reigned in the victor's locker room. And here's why: Because as much as the Falcons pointed to Monday's game, as much as they prepared in an effort to reverse the results of the conference title game loss that left them a win shy of a Super Bowl berth, the Atlanta players understood that their 14-10 victory only slightly alters the NFC landscape.
For that demonstration of maturity, particularly in light of the lack discipline that marked the pregame brawl, Falcons coach Jim Mora was clearly a proud man.
"I think the way we handled this win," said Mora, in what was arguably the most notable triumph of his brief head coach career, "is almost as important at the victory itself. This is a mature team and they know what's ahead. I think they understand they what we have to do now is go out and validate this victory."
This is a franchise which, remarkably, has never enjoyed consecutive winning seasons. And now in its 40th year of existence, Atlanta hasn't even strung together two or three big wins in a row during much of its four decades. But the Falcons will wear a bull's-eye now, courtesy of Monday's win, and with four straight matchups against solid postseason contenders looming on the schedule, will get a quick test of their ability to dodge the all the darts and arrows the NFL can toss at them.
And so Mora's words weren't so much cautionary as they were relatively pragmatic. After having resided most of their existence in the NFL's basement, it will be interesting to see how the Falcons handle life in the penthouse.
Make no mistake, the Falcons are a chatty bunch, a team that can talk the talk and now, apparently walk the walk as well. But there was a notable absence of braggadocio in the Atlanta locker room, even though the payback to the Eagles certainly establishes Mora's young and aggressive bunch as a group capable of nudging Philadelphia from its perch as the NFC's highest-profile team.
In the media interview area, which is adjacent to the Atlanta locker room, there have been times in the past when the Falcons' hooting and hollering was so raucous following any sort of significant victory that it carried through the closed doors. But on Monday night, either Atlanta owner Arthur Blank took advantage of his Home Depot connections to have the doors between the two areas soundproofed, or the Falcons' group celebration was an uncharacteristically muted one.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Warrick Dunn was his dependable self Monday night, running for 117 yards in Atlanta's win.
Which is not to say that Falcons players don't comprehend the significance of upending the imperious Eagles, recognized for several years now as the NFC's premier franchise. The Eagles came here intending to turn the South into South Philly, and with a legion of throaty fans in attendance at the Georgia Dome, and instead were turned away.
"Oh, definitely, people have to look at us a little differently now," said middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, the Falcons' most notable free agent addition in an offseason in which Mora and general manager Rich McKay made only minor tweaks to the roster. "That's a good team we beat. But to beat a good team, you have to be a good team, and I think this is a team that's better than good. We knocked off the best team the NFC has to offer, so that must say something about us."
Only time will tell if Monday's win was the kind of threshold moment and galvanizing event that shakes up the balance of power in the conference. The Eagles remain, despite a bitter defeat principally marked by offensive inconstancy, a formidable foe. The Falcons, however, view themselves now as more than an upstart. And sometimes the manner in which you view yourself is nearly as important as how others see you.
With the victory on Monday night, the Falcons don't have to look nearly so much in the rear-view mirror, because the view out the front windshield is an inviting one.
"It's a great boost to our confidence," said second-year cornerback D'Angelo Hall. "You can talk about beating good teams but, until you do it, that's just talk. Empty words. You have to back it up and that's what we did here tonight."
The team's first-round choice in 2004, and a player billed as a "shutdown" cornerback, Hall was a key to the Atlanta victory. Hell-bent on earning a Pro Bowl spot this season, and driven to succeed at the highest level and against the best players, he asked coaches last week to let him cover Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens all over the field. And, while Owens had seven catches for 112 yards, Hall kept him out of the end zone, had an interception, two other passes defensed, and five tackles.
One huge play he made that probably went undetected by most observers came late in the third quarter. Hall jumped an inside slant route by Owens so quickly that it forced Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to pull the ball down and turn to his left for an alternate receiver. Defensive end Patrick Kerney, given additional time because McNabb had to hold the ball, sacked the quarterback and caused a fumble.
Atlanta needed such defensive moments because, once again, the offense was sporadic.
Quarterback Michael Vick has grown testy at discussing his shortcomings as a pocket passer but Monday did little to quiet his critics. Vick was 12 for 23 for 156 yards and, beyond a huge, 58-yard completion to wideout Michael Jenkins to set up the Falcons' second and final touchdown, looked typically disjointed in the pocket. No matter, though, since Vick scampered for 68 yards and made enough plays with his feet.
Notable, as well, was the excellent run-blocking provided by the right side of the Falcons line, tackle Todd Weiner and guard Kynan Forney. Particularly early in the game, the two carved out big creases for mighty mite tailback Warrick Dunn. Unofficially, Dunn gained 74 of his 117 rushing yards on runs to the right side.
"I think it was our kind of game," said Jenkins, who has shown some modest signs of emerging as the go-to wide receiver Vick so desperately needs. "Run the ball, get some timely passes, let Mike make some plays, and let our defense stop people. It's a pretty good formula, and we're just hoping we can ride it a long way. This game just says we were the best team tonight. Now we've got to try to say it for 15 more (games)."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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