ATLANTA -- They popped champagne bottles Sunday night around northern Georgia, and not just because of New Year's Eve. The Atlanta Falcons are in the NFL playoffs, but, um. Well, if you go by what we've seen from these guys since the opening week of the season, this might not mean much.
They look awful. OK, I'll say mediocre.
If nothing else, this isn't the Falcons bunch that stormed its way down the stretch of last season into the Super Bowl before making "28-3" the ugliest of numbers for those into the old or new Dirty Birds.
That said, courtesy of a suddenly potent defense and the frequently accurate right foot of 42-year-old Matt Bryant, the Falcons survived the Carolina Panthers 22-10 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to slip into the sixth and final spot of the postseason for the NFC as a wild-card team. It wasn't pretty, but such has been the way for these Falcons along the way to a 10-6 record after another game of dropped passes, silly penalties, virtually no running game, issues in the red zone and several things that aren't so spiffy.
It's enough to make you wonder: How in the name of that defense and Bryant are the Falcons traveling to Los Angeles this weekend to meet the Rams in the opening round? But guess what?
Flawed or not, the Falcons are the only NFC team from last year to make back-to-back trips to the playoffs.
"Yeah, I think it's just a testament to this team and what [Falcons coach Dan Quinn] is building here and the kind of character and the type of guys we have here in this locker room," Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews said of a group that rebounded from losing four out of five games through early November. "We expect to be here, so we've got a really good and mature team, and we'll be prepared to go next week. Getting in the playoffs, that's the goal for every team, and we did that, and now it's 0-0."
Matthews' reference was to the new record of those entering the postseason, not to how this game threatened to end in a scoreless tie. You had that nearly touchdown-challenged offense for the Falcons that reached the end zone on the game's opening drive before needing five field goals from Bryant to keep from embarrassing itself. Then you had those Atlanta defenders continuing their season-long rise to significance by turning Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the rest of the Carolina offense into a mess for four quarters. The 11-5 Panthers finished with 248 yards of offense after Newton mustered just a quarterback rating of 31.5. While mostly running for his life, he completed 14 of his 34 passes for 180 yards, two sacks and three interceptions.
"We just locked down and played our style of ball," said Falcons safety Keanu Neal, who grabbed one of those Newton picks. "It's not so much of what they do, but it's about what we do."
Whatever they Falcons are doing on defense, with a bunch of fast and athletic young players under first year coordinator Marquand Manuel, they're doing it well enough to rank 10th in the NFL in total defense. They were 25th last season, and needless to say, many of these same Atlanta defenders watched the Patriots score the Super Bowl's final 31 points last February.
That's so 2017, though. As for 2018, the Falcons knew before Sunday's opening kickoff they could celebrate the new year in the playoffs just by beating NFC South foe Carolina. If the Seahawks dropped a home game to the Cardinals, the Falcons also could reach the postseason, but they weren't counting on that. The Panthers are the NFC's other wild-card team, but they had a chance to capture the division and host a playoff game if the Buccaneers upset the Saints.
All three games occurred at the same time. The Panthers blew it since the Bucs beat the Saints, and by the Cardinals handling the Seahawks, the Falcons would have made the playoffs anyway.
The Falcons only cared about the Falcons.
"We played good. That was one of our better games, because we played as a team, we played a whole game, and we played as if we knew everything was on the line," said safety Ricardo Allen, who grabbed the first of those Newton interceptions for the Falcons. "It doesn't even matter how the season went last year or what took place this year. You're out there grinding, man. You play all of these weeks, and you just want to keep going."
No problem there for the Falcons' defense. Their offense, not so much. Still, with much help from Matt Ryan's right arm, Atlanta spent the game's opening drive going 75 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown, punctuated by his 19-yard swing toss out of the backfield to Devonta Freeman. Before intermission, it was 7-7 after Newton's four-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess for a 7-7 tie at intermission.
The Falcons managed a field goal on their opening possession of the second half for a 10-7 lead, but you just knew they'd need more. Newton was across the way, and he's a human bulldozer of 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, with more career rushing yards than any NFL quarterback in history not named Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham or Steve Young. He also can throw, but he kept doing so Sunday to the wrong team. His first interception led to a Bryant field goal for a 13-7 lead, because the Falcons continued their 2017 habit of botching touchdown opportunities. So it wasn't surprising they settled for another Bryant field goal to begin the fourth quarter. Then came another Bryant field goal (a season-high one of 56 yards) with 6:37 left to play for a 19-10 advantage after Carolina kicked one of its own. Then Bryant finished the game's scoring with a 33-yarder before the two-minute warning, and the Falcons were playoff bound.
"The biggest thing is that we didn't fall into complacency," Neal said, referring to the game and to the season for the Falcons. "We kept fighting."
I guess that's a start.