ATLANTA — Drawing conclusions two weeks into an NFL season is always a perilous exercise. But it is becoming pretty apparent that the NFC is lacking in teams without significant blemishes. And the Atlanta Falcons, seemingly not demoralized by their Super Bowl meltdown, are making a case that they just might remain the conference’s team to beat.
It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be this way. Super Bowl defeats always are tough to overcome. That particular Super Bowl defeat — from Falcons 28, Patriots 3 to Patriots 34, Falcons 28 — was supposed to leave a mark that wouldn’t quickly fade.
But when the Falcons officially opened their palatial new stadium Sunday night, they did so in style by overwhelming a formidable NFC foe. They raced to a huge lead and, this time, they held on, beating the Green Bay Packers, 34-23, and looking very good in doing so.
“I don’t think about it too much,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of the bid to rebound from the Super Bowl loss. “I think everybody else does because the question keeps coming up. But for us, we were focused on playing Week 1 against Chicago, getting better this offseason. We tried to answer it that way. But it kind of seems like nobody really believed you when you were saying it. But it’s felt that way in our building, for sure.
“Were we disappointed with how it ended? Absolutely. But we got past that. We started working on trying to become the best 2017 football team that we could be. And we’re two games into it, and mission accomplished on those first two games.”
The Falcons and Carolina Panthers are the NFC’s only 2-0 teams. The Detroit Lions could join them if they beat the New York Giants on Monday night at the Meadowlands.
The Falcons aren’t perfect. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is gone and, despite his questionable play-calling in the second half of the Super Bowl, he played a major role in last season’s success. The defense must prove that it has grown up and is not the same unit that failed to slow down Tom Brady and the rest of the New England offense as the Super Bowl slipped away.
But this is a conference of far-from-perfect teams. The Dallas Cowboys, even with running back Ezekiel Elliott kept eligible to play, were dominated Sunday in Denver. The Seattle Seahawks can’t get their offense moving. The Panthers couldn’t even manage a touchdown Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. The Packers, following a season-opening triumph over the Seahawks, were not competitive in this game as their list of key injuries grew unmanageable.
The Falcons still have Ryan, the reigning league MVP, and wide receiver Julio Jones. They were terrific Sunday night during a first half in which the Falcons built a 24-7 lead. Ryan threw for 201 yards and a touchdown before halftime, and Jones had four catches for 95 yards. Ryan finished with 252 yards in a 19-for-28 passing performance. Jones had five catches for 128 yards.
“The last two times we played them, there was a lot of double-coverage on Julio,” Ryan said. “And tonight that really wasn’t the case. We had some opportunities where he got singled up. And any time he gets singled up, he’s gonna make plays for us.”
Tailback Devonta Freeman provided a pair of rushing touchdowns. The youthful defense that struggled for much of last season appears more formidable now. Players spoke before the season about being a year older and a year wiser, and about having a turnover-generating approach. They did their part in this game.
An interception by cornerback Desmond Trufant in the final minute of the first half set up a touchdown pass from Ryan to running back Tevin Coleman. Then in the third quarter, standout pass rusher Vic Beasley put a crunching hit on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, resulting in a backward pass. Trufant picked up the loose football off the turf and dashed to the end zone for a touchdown that pushed the Falcons’ advantage to 31-7.
Beasley emerged from the game with a hamstring injury, but that could not compare to the Packers’ injury woes. Both of Green Bay’s starting offensive tackles, Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari, were on the inactive list. A third offensive lineman, guard Jahri Evans, suffered a groin injury. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson exited with a quadriceps injury. Wideout Randall Cobb hurt his shoulder. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels left the game with a hamstring injury.
Rodgers, left with far too little help, absorbed a number of jarring hits and couldn’t keep the Packers close enough. His pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes was far too little, far too late.
It was a frustrating night for the Packers in which both Rodgers and Coach Mike McCarthy let their annoyance show after a first-half offensive pass interference penalty called on tight end Martellus Bennett wiped out a significant gain. McCarthy was given a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for screaming at the officials following the Falcons’ final first-half touchdown.
This time, there would be no miraculous comeback by a Falcons opponent. They could celebrate their stadium unveiling by handing a game ball to team owner Arthur Blank.
“Just a great night for the city and for the fans and especially for Mr. Blank,” Falcons Coach Dan Quinn said.
So much is left to play out in the 2017 season. But the Falcons are signaling their intention to play well into January and perhaps beyond.
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