I got a major sense of deja vu on Monday night in thinking about the Falcons' season. It was almost like I had just experienced the same thing with the local college football collective. Bear with me for a moment. The Georgia Bulldogs got off to a slow start this season, losing their first two games. They then righted the ship, winning ten in a row, albeit against inferior opposition that caused me to speculate about the value of the 10-game run. The key test was against LSU, a team that represented a major step up from Georgia's previous competition. After a strong first 20 minutes or so, the Dawgs faded badly in the second half and established that they are clearly good, not great.
Plug the Falcons' season into that framework and you get something strikingly similar. The Dirty Birds started off the season 2-3, with the two wins coming: (1) against the Eagles when Philly had to deploy their third-string quarterback for the fourth quarter of a close game; and (2) in a nail-biter against the Seahawks, a performance that looked worse at the time than it does now. Otherwise, there was a blowout loss to the Bears, a bad performance in Tampa, and a double-digit home loss to the Packers. The Falcons then started to pick up steam as the schedule got easier, winning seven of nine with the only losses coming in overtime against the Saints and by one score on the road against the Texans with Julio Jones dropping the potential game-tying pass on the final play.
As with Georgia, the question was whether the Falcons were simply benefiting from playing below-average opponents. (The combined current record of the seven victims during the hot stretch? 39-66. The combined record of Georgia's nine FBS victims during their hot stretch? 49-60.) As with Georgia, the test was going to come against a favored rival from Louisiana. As with Georgia, the Falcons played well into the second quarter before getting destroyed for roughly the last 60 percent of the game. As with Georgia, we are left to conclude that the local team is good, but not great, and we have to decide whether we are satisfied with that.
The major difference between the two situations is that the NFL has a playoff structure and college football does not. After losing to LSU, Georgia gets a trip to Tampa to play Michigan State. The Dawgs will get a good test from the Spartans and we ought to be able to tell more about Georgia after the game - Michigan State is significantly better than any of the teams that Georgia beat during the 10-game winning streak - but that will be the end of the story. We'll have to wait for next year to see if Georgia can take a step up.
On the other hand, the NFL has a playoff system, so the Falcons are likely going to get a third shot at the Saints team that has beaten them twice already this year. From the perspective of crowning the most deserving team, the NFL's system is all wrong. The Saints have been three games better than the Falcons, which is a significant margin over a 15-game stretch. New Orleans beat Atlanta both home and away. It's impossible to look at the regular season and conclude that the Falcons are the better or more deserving team. Nevertheless, barring something unforeseen, the Falcons are going to get a third bite at the apple in a loser-goes-home playoff. The only reward that the Saints will get from being 20 percent better than the Falcons over the course of the season is that they will get to play the wild card round game at home, an advantage that seems increasingly small in an era where the '07 Giants, '08 Cardinals, and '10 Packers won the NFC as low seeds.
Leaving aside the fairness question, I like the idea of a rematch on a purely emotional level. Sean Payton and Drew Brees rubbed the Falcons' collective nose in the mud on Monday night. For those of you who were smart enough to abandon ship before I did, the Saints took the ball over on the Falcons 33 with 5:08 to go and with a 38-16 lead. Most coaches would do one of two things at this stage: (1) leave the starters in and run the ball to kill the clock; or (2) put in the back-ups and run the regular offense to take a look at the lower parts of the depth chart in game conditions.* Instead, Payton chose option (3): leave Brees in the game to throw five more passes so he could break Marino's record on a meaningless drive against a beaten opponent. Though the Hindus speak of karma, Brees remained upright to the end and was even able to deliver a nauseating show of false modesty after the game, claiming in his usual aw shucks manner that he didn't know how many yards he needed to get for the record. Uh, Drew, maybe the fact that you were throwing on just about every down on a drive that started on the 33 should have clued you in that you needed fewer than 33 yards.
* - This latter approach would have made the most sense for the Saints because they are one Brees injury from having to play Chase Daniel. Daniel has thrown all of five passes in his NFL career, two this year and three last year. In contrast, Brees has thrown 622 pass attempts this season, 120 more than Aaron Rodgers and 58 more than Dan Marino threw during his fabled 1984 season. Not that you would know this from the Breesapalooza that Tirico, Jaworski, and Gruden unleashed on Monday night, but Brees broke the single season passing record in no small part because he has a ridiculous number of attempts. One reason why he has a ridiculous number of attempts is that Payton apparently leaves him in the game to keep chucking the ball at the end of blowouts. One counter: no Patriot other than Tom Brady has thrown a pass all year and Matt Flynn has thrown all of five passes for the Packers, so maybe the standard in the NFL is for the back-up either to stay on the bench or to refrain from throwing when he comes in.
The last five minutes of Monday's game ought to be a massive motivating factor for the Falcons. Their arch-rival brazenly ran up the score in an attempt to get a record that they could have gotten with ease in a home game this coming Sunday. Every ounce of professional pride that the players and coaches have ought to be directed into delivering The Big Payback. Monday's game was an outlier in the sense that matchups between the Payton Saints and the Mike Smith Falcons have tended to be close - the prior six had all been decided by one score - so it's not like the Falcons can't deliver what would be one of the great schadenfreude moments in franchise history (and there have been precious few).
The Falcons don't deserve a chance to ruin the Saints' season, but in the NFL, deserve's got nothing to do with it.