PHILADELPHIA -- Some streak was destined to get blown away by the pre-hurricane winds at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.
Either the Falcons, the last undefeated team in the NFL this season, would lose their first game of the year, or the Eagles would lose after their bye week after 13 consecutive post-bye victories under Andy Reid. Or, as a frightening third possibility, both teams could be washed away in a flood of Sandy-induced storm surge and cheesesteak grease.
It turned out that neither Reid nor Hurricane Sandy stood a chance. The Falcons won easily, 30-17, on the strength of three Matt Ryan touchdowns, raising their record to 7-0.
The game was a simple case of one team moving forward while another looked backward.
Seen through the prism of Sunday’s loss, Reid’s post-bye streak looks more like a probabilistic quirk than some validation of his ability to outsmart his rivals given a few extra hours of prep time. Reid’s streak endured through three presidential administrations and something far more contentious and divisive: Donovan McNabb’s career. But the streak was a leftover of Falcons matchups long passed, a living fossil from the days of beating Michael Vick after January snowstorms, not losing with him before October hurricanes.
The Reid streak started when the Eagles beat Dick Vermeil’s Rams in Week 17 of the 1999 season, when the Rams were in “rest for the playoffs” mode. (Yes, the NFL had Week 16 byes back then.) Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk started that game; Joe Germaine and Robert Holcombe finished it. The Rams took a 14-3 lead, but the Eagles came back to win 38-31. The Rams backups were germane to the discussion of what happened.
The 2000 Eagles also won after a Week 16 bye, beating a Bengals team that had recently changed coaches (Dick LeBeau for Bruce Coslet), and quarterbacks (Scott Mitchell for Akili Smith). Looking back on the fluky early days of the streak does not minimize Reid’s overall accomplishments as a head coach or trivialize some of the huge post-bye wins the Eagles have enjoyed in recent years, but when we start talking about Joe Germaine, Scott Mitchell, Akili Smith and Week 16 byes, we might as well be talking about dial-up modems and CD-ROMs.
This year, the Eagles were the team making major changes before the bye, replacing embattled defensive coordinator Juan Castillo with Todd Bowles, who spent the second half of last season and the first half of this year serving as a consultant/Man Behind the Curtain. Bowles’ defense certainly looked different from Castillo’s; cornerbacks were isolated in man coverage more often, and defensive linemen like Jason Babin dropped more frequently into coverage. “Todd’s plan was to switch it up,” Babin said, noting that most of the changes were not extreme. “To not always be in the D-gap, sometimes be in the C-gap, sometimes you’ve got coverage, sometimes you drop. Just not be so predictable.”
Unfortunately, the changes only made things worse. The Falcons scored their first touchdown on a miscommunication between defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Kurt Coleman that allowed receiver Drew Davis to jog unhindered into the back of the end zone. (“Busted coverage,” Bowles explained after the game. “There were two guys that should have been there. They were not.”) Their second touchdown came at the end of a crisp eight-play drive. Their third found Julio Jones outracing Nnamdi Asomugha in man coverage up the sideline for 63 yards. The Falcons punted just once the whole game; Matt Ryan threw just three first-half incompletions.
Reid called the loss “embarrassing” and brushed off questions about his post-bye streak as “just the same questions reworded,” sticking to his familiar mantra of accepting full responsibility for losses and expecting players to execute better. The 13-win streak, if it was ever relevant, is now a statistical relic, a leftover from the days when the Eagles were perennial contenders with a 75 percent chance of winning every time they took the field.
There are no ancient civilizations buried beneath the Falcons’ winning streak, though there may be some shaky building materials in the foundation. The Falcons are the undefeated team that just isn’t undefeated enough for our tastes, having gritted out narrow wins against the Panthers, Redskins and Raiders while beating weaklings like the Chiefs and Chargers. If the Falcons were 5-2 with a resume of tight wins, and had they not been a playoff team in previous years, we would applaud their scrappy ability to “find a way to win.” But as perennial contenders with the temerity to not blow opponents away, they have become the favorites to be upset every week, the team that is “due” to lose next week or in January, or both.
This is all just human nature: a 55-degree afternoon feels balmy in March and frigid in September, a circle looks bigger when surrounded by small dots than big dots, and so on. For analysts, the challenge is seeing the Falcons through the optical illusions. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric ranked the Falcons ninth in the NFL entering Sunday’s games, behind the 49ers, Giants, Packers, Bears and Seahawks in the NFC. They will gain ground after Sunday’s win, as narrow victories by the Packers and Bears over bad opponents will move some statistical needles, as will the Seahawks’ loss to the Lions. Ranking the Falcons below teams like the Giants and Packers feels right. If the playoffs started on Saturday, we know the Falcons would be in, and we might expect them to lose to one of the teams that has beaten them in the past.
The Falcons that beat the Eagles on Sunday were not overwhelmingly strong, yet you had to look hard to find outstanding weaknesses. Their offense is more diverse than it was during the 2008, 2010 and 2011 playoff runs. Jones has grown into an exceptional complement to Roddy White. Jacquizz Rodgers is a useful changeup for the plodding Michael Turner, and the Falcons can now generate offense by throwing to their running backs. Babin said that the Falcons' screen game caused the Eagles problems, though Bowles said the Falcons showed the Eagles “nothing we weren’t expecting.” Ryan is not flashy, but he keeps growing; his calm efficiently while running the no-huddle before halftime led to the field goal that made the score 24-7 and, with the help of some heavy rains, put the game out of reach. On defense, the Falcons are balanced and capable, holding the Eagles to 270 net yards with the help of an offense that kept the opponent off the field for most of the first half.
Sunday’s victory offered a true sense of the 2012 Falcons: They are lacking when compared to the documentary version of the 1972 Dolphins, but they have no reason to apologize for their undefeated record. They beat a very good Broncos team, some of their “weak” opponents are hardly weak at all, and they just ended a 13-year winning streak on the road in tropical storm conditions. The NFC playoffs will likely go through the Georgia Dome, and if they face the Giants in a playoff rematch, it will be a battle of similar teams: strong up and down, easy to underestimate.
When the Falcons’ winning streak ends, it will not mean much, because they are a team with a future. The team they beat on Sunday is lost in the past.