San Francisco’s coach and former Atlanta OC, Kyle Shanahan, called Sunday’s game against the 49ers the Super Bowl for the Falcons, who were sitting at 4-9 and eliminated from playoff contention entering the weekend. I’m not sure if that was meant to be a cheap jab at his former team or if he was being sincere, but the Falcons sure showed up and played like it meant a lot more than just win number five in a lost season.
For the sixth consecutive contest, Atlanta’s defense looked like they were supposed to the entire year. They held Kyle Shanahan’s creative offense in check all afternoon, limiting the 49ers to just 193 yards through the air and 124 on the ground.
Both teams were held scoreless in the first quarter, but San Francisco finally broke the silence in the form of a 21-play, 88-yard drive that ended in a touchdown and chewed up nearly 11 minutes off the clock. The Falcons offense would respond, however, marching 75 yards in ten plays for a score, capping the drive off with a six-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Julio Jones. The teams would swap field goals before half time, entering the locker room tied at ten apiece.
After a fairly uneventful third quarter, things cranked up substantially in the final period, starting with a Kenjon Barner fumble that gave the 49ers the ball at the one-yard line. Jimmy G cashed in two plays later with a short touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk, but a missed extra point would keep their lead at nine.
The following possession, Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s offense answered with a touchdown drive of their own. This time it was 75 yards over nine plays, and Quadree Ollison finished it off with a one-yard run, cutting the lead to two with a little over five minutes left to play.
Unfortunately, the Falcons defense could not get off the field quickly, but they were able to leave just enough time on the clock for Matt Ryan to orchestrate a potential game-winning drive. The 49ers kicked a field goal with less than two minutes to go in the game, putting the Falcons down five with one timeout remaining. Then, things got crazy.
Ryan and company were able to move the ball down the field with ease and set themselves up at the five-yard line with eight seconds left to go. On the second to last play of the game, Ryan hit Hooper in the center of the end zone for an incredible touchdown – thanks to Austin Hooper’s feet – which prevented the ball from touching the ground. However, replay did not agree with the Falcons, as they ruled the pass incomplete, leaving Matt Ryan one last chance to exact revenge on his former offensive coordinator, and he did not disappoint.
Ryan dropped back, surveyed the field, and hit Julio Jones on a crossing route right on the goal line. Initially, Jones was ruled down at the one-yard line, but after further review, it was ruled a touchdown, sealing a victory for the Falcons against the NFC’s best team. Matt Ryan threw his arms into the air and let out a victorious scream – one that we have been deprived of for most of this season. It may not have been a Super Bowl, but it definitely put a temporary mask on what has been an atrocious 2019 campaign.
Sunday continued the trend of the Falcons, who are now 4-2 since their bye week, with wins on the road over the Saints and 49ers. They also have two blowout victories over the Panthers under their belt during that stretch, featuring a defense that has transformed incredibly since Dan Quinn relinquished his playcalling duties.
The secondary has made tremendous strides with Raheem Morris now coaching them, which is even more noteworthy considering Keanu Neal and Desmond Trufant are out for the season. Blown coverages are a thing of the past, and because of that, the defensive line has been able to pressure the quarterback consistently, specifically Vic Beasley.
Falcons fans, including myself, have not been shy about criticizing the former All-Pro defensive end, and he’s deserved most of it. But since the bye week, he’s been as productive as any pass rusher in the league, which makes you wonder how he ever went weeks without any impact.
More than anything, however, this team is playing inspired football under their head coach. We heard the players talk about having Quinn’s back when things were going bad earlier in the year, but until they responded on the field, nobody was going to believe what they had to say. Now, it’s pretty damn obvious they appreciate playing for their head coach, and they are going to do everything over these last few weeks to make sure he’s around next year, putting Arthur Blank in between a rock and a hard place.
Back when the Falcons were 1-5, Blank said he was looking for improvement from his team. Well, if that’s the case, Quinn has provided that and then some. You could make the argument the Falcons are playing the best football in the NFC right now – a far cry from where they were eight weeks ago – and that might be enough to earn Quinn another sixteen games as head coach.
I’m not saying it is the correct decision. Personally, I think Quinn’s made too many mistakes – ones that can no longer be overlooked. I’m proud of how his team has responded to him, but there is no excuse for this roster to be 1-7 over an eight-game stretch – EVER. With that being said, Blank has not been shy about his fondness for Quinn. He genuinely believes this staff has what it takes to do the job because they have done it before, leading the team to the Super Bowl back in 2016. Whether that is the right mindset; we will have to see. But I no longer feel safe betting against Quinn being on the Falcons sideline in 2020.