DETROIT — In some respects, the Atlanta Falcons have been immune from definitive judgment since Sept. 30 — the day they upgraded to 4-0 and the rival New Orleans Saints, last year’s NFC South champs, plunged to 0-4.
Post a perfect record at home (7-0, with one more to play).
OK, but what about the three sluggish comeback victories over bottom-rung clubs like the Panthers, Raiders and Cardinals?
Sweep through the four-game slate of AFC West opponents.
OK, but how would the Falcons have fared against the Broncos in the season’s latter half … once Peyton Manning found his Hall of Fame-worthy rhythm?
Knock off all four NFC East clubs by a combined score of 107-47.
OK, but does Atlanta have the defensive chops to contain Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo or Eli Manning for a second time — if there’s a second go-round?
Trump the hapless Lions — as they did Saturday night in Detroit — to improve to 13-2 and clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
OK, but how does this accomplishment erase memories of the Falcons’ high-profile failure from two seasons ago, when they held the NFC’s top seed but were pounded by the Packers (48-21) in the divisional playoff round?
There’s a mixed blessing to the Falcons enjoying one of the best campaigns in franchise history, with a chance to tie the 1998 team’s regular-season mark of 14-2 (next week against the Bucs).
Lofty wins over Denver, San Diego, Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas and New Orleans get viewed with restrained jubilation, but a December loss to Carolina somehow garners more scrutiny with the masses, the ones trying to characterize it as some random occurrence… or a de facto blueprint for handling Atlanta in January.
In essence, the narrative surrounding the Falcons’ sterling season keeps changing … and it’ll remain a moving target until the club can break new ground in the playoffs, by way of an NFC title-game berth or Super Bowl invite.
At Ford Field on Saturday, the Falcons coolly dispatched the Lions, 31-18. The same Detroit club that was viewed as superior to, or on par with, Atlanta before the season launched in early September. The same Lions (4-11) who have now dropped seven straight and remain viable contenders for a top-three draft pick in April.
Despite limited midweek practice time, Falcons receiver Roddy White shrugged off a sore knee and stymied the Lions for eight catches, 153 yards and two touchdowns.
From a yardage perspective, White couldn’t match the brilliance of Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (11 catches, 225 yards), who established an NFL seasonal record for receiving yards (breaking Jerry Rice’s mark of 1,848 from 1995).
From an impact standpoint, though, White stood as a primary reason the Falcons are celebrating the franchise’s third No. 1 playoff seed in their 46-year history (1980, 2010)… and not lamenting another December defeat to a sub-.500 club on the road to nowhere.
In his postgame comments, Falcons QB Matt Ryan didn’t seem too surprised by White’s big outing.
“In our offense, I feel like it could be any (of our guys) to step up and make the plays, week in and week out,” said Ryan. “I thought Roddy, in the first half, had some unbelievable plays for us, some explosives.”
Ryan was similarly stellar in his team’s road finale, completing 25 of 32 passes for 279 yards and a season-high four touchdowns. For good measure, he tied Steve Bartkowski (1980) for the franchise mark in TD passes for a season (31).
Ryan’s best throw: A corner-end-zone rainbow to Julio Jones (seven catches, 71 yards), good for a 16-yard touchdown in the second quarter, boosting Atlanta’s lead to 21-3. His most important toss: With the Falcons stationed at their own 28 and clinging to a 21-16 lead early in the fourth, Ryan connected with White for 15 yards on a crucial third-down conversion.
It was the signature moment of an 11-play, 78-yard scoring drive — capped by tight end Matt Palmer’s one-yard touchdown reception. It might have also been the last endearing memory of Ryan’s elite-level regular season (4,481 yards, 32 total TDs through 15 games) … while serving as a springboard to what lies ahead in the NFC playoffs.
“I thought we did a great job of it on that drive in the fourth quarter,” said Ryan. “Converted a couple of third downs, kept it going, and we were able to punch it in. That was a huge momentum changer.”
Of the 12 previous NFL seasons, the NFC’s top playoff seed advanced to the Super Bowl six times, essentially making it a 50-50 proposition to reach Super Sunday as the conference favorite.
Yes, that amounts to a coin-flip’s chance for the Falcons to reach the Super Bowl; but when playing at the Georgia Dome, where Ryan holds a lifetime starting mark of 33-5 (including the playoffs), it beats traveling to blustery outdoor locales such as Green Bay, San Francisco, Seattle or New Jersey (the Giants) in January.
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” said Jones, who wasn’t with the Falcons in 2010 but has vivid memories of last year’s playoff disappointment — a 24-2 road loss to the eventual-champion Giants in the wild-card round.
With an eye toward divisional playoff weekend (Jan 12-13), the Falcons will again be presented with an opportunity to change the narrative to this captivating season.
For better or worse.
Either way, the time for definitive judgment begins in three weeks.