The Atlanta Falcons don’t look like a team that is going to fade away this time around. The team’s 43-28 win in Tampa Thursday night gives the team breathing room in the NFC South. Here’s what we learned:
1. No team makes picking up 20 yards look simpler than the Falcons. The ease and precision with which Matt Ryan operates the Falcons‘ offense shouldn’t take away from what he’s accomplishing. Thursday night’s 343-yard, four-touchdown performance showed a quarterback completely in command of his offense.
Ryan anticipates so well, delivering the ball before his receivers make breaks in their routes. Ryan delivers chunk plays in droves, spreading the ball around, with six different receivers catching a pass over 20 yards. The MVP race between Ryan and Tom Brady is on.
2. Jameis Winston left Thursday’s game with a knee injury midway through the fourth quarter. He was seen walking on the sideline after taking a vicious shot at the goal line trying to score on a two point conversion, but the injury shouldn’t keep him out of next week’s game.
“I feel great. I feel great,” Winston said after the game.
This game was Winston’s season in a nutshell. He made a handful of “wow” plays, including an insane left-handed completion after getting hit from his blindside. After a fast start, the Bucs lost a few fumbles and the offense moved the ball sporadically with very little running game. Winston has mostly done his part in a terrible situation, but he’s not good enough yet to carry a franchise like this. Perhaps no young quarterback would be.
3. The biggest difference between these two teams was the pass rush. While Matt Ryan had no trouble surveying the field all night, Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith was tortured by Falcons pass rushers Adrian Clayborn and Vic Beasley. Atlanta’s defense is quietly coming together with rookie safety Keanu Neal, rookie linebacker Deion Jones and second-year nose tackle Grady Jarrett all coming into their own.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if this defense is playing much better by the end of the season.
4. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter made a curious decision early in the second quarter that might have said a lot about how he views his defense. He allowed the Falcons to kick a 41-yard field goal rather than accept a penalty that would have forced Atlanta back 15 yards for a third-and-22.
That’s a tacit admission that giving up three points was a win for the Bucs’ defense and he was worried about letting Atlanta convert such a difficult third down. His lack of confidence makes sense. The Falcons scored on eight of their 10 possessions, losing a fumble and punting once.
5. The Bucs’ defense was on the field for more than 90 plays in their overtime loss to Oakland. It showed up Thursday, as it looked like a tired unit. This is a Bucs squad that is lucky to be 3-5. The defense ranks among the worst units in football and the offense has suffered too many injuries, especially at running back.
6. As Julio Jones explained after the game, he was double covered for most of a quiet first half. The Falcons scored on nearly every possession. So the Bucs decided to let rookie Vernon Hargreaves try to check Jones to start the second half, and Julio ate him up. His red-zone score over Hargreaves looked like an adult playing with a kid.
7. Winston gets blasted trying to score nearly every week, which included an attempt to run over Raiders linebacker Perry Riley in Week 8. He needs to learn how to protect himself and learn what risks are worth taking. (Note: A left-handed pass while being tackled in hopes of a five-yard gain is not worth it.)
8. If nothing else, Mike Evans (11 catches for 150 yards and two TDs) makes the Bucs worth watching every week. His one-handed grab on the sideline before getting cracked in the chest was perhaps the catch of the year in the NFL.
9. The Falcons only have one game in the next 22 days with a bye in Week 11 on the way. At 6-3, they don’t look like a team that will slide enough down the stretch to allow Carolina or New Orleans back in the division race. This is a slump-proof offense.