Maybe the Falcons should play more games outside of the United States.
After going 2-9 in their home country, they are now unbeaten in Canada, as they ended a five-game losing streak with a 34-31 overtime victory on Sunday over the Buffalo Bills at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
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We’ll see how they fare next year in London when they will yield a home game to play the Detroit Lions.
The Falcons won on Sunday by harkening back to the formula that proved successful for them last year when they lost as many games in the regular season (three) as they have now won in this woebegone 2013 campaign: creating turnovers in combination with a potent offense.
Late in regulation and again in overtime, the Falcons’ secondary forced fumbles not only to prevent what looked like certain defeat but also to turn it into victory — this from a team that entered the game ranked 30th in the NFL in turnover differential at minus-12 against an opponent that was plus-3.
The first critical turnover came when nickelback Robert McClain, after getting beaten by Stevie Johnson (as he had much of the day), punched the ball out of Johnson’s hands after a 14-yard gain at the Falcons’ 28-yard line. With 20 seconds left, safety William Moore, a Pro-Bowler last season who has struggled this season, recovered.
Moore entered the game with only one interception and one forced fumble and no fumble recoveries. Last season, Moore totaled four interceptions, two forced fumbles and recovered a fumble in only 12 games. If Johnson had held on to the ball in that situation, Buffalo was looking at a 45-yard field goal — at minimum — to win the game. Instead, the Falcons forced overtime.
On the first possession of overtime, the Falcons turned in an almost identical play and again it was Moore who was at the center of the action. This time Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel completed a 22-yard pass to tight end Scott Chandler but Moore caused a fumble at the Buffalo 45. The ball squirted down the field and bounced only the way footballs can.
Falcons rookie Robert Alford then made two of the least fundamental plays possible — and they helped the Falcons to win the game. First, instead of diving on the ground and cradling the ball, Alford picked it up from a standing and began to return it. Then he lateralled the ball to fellow rookie Desmond Trufant, who streaked 18 yards up the field, giving the Falcons a first down at the Buffalo 47. As Alford came off the field, television cameras caught Falcons head coach Mike Smith grasping Alford’s helmet with a hand on each earhole. The no-nonsense coach inserted his head as far as it would go into Alford’s mask, no doubt informing the second-round pick never to engage in any monkey business in that situation again.
Five plays later, Matt Bryant made a 36-yard field goal with 12:00 left in overtime and the Falcons escaped with their first victory since Oct. 20. What do their three wins have in common? They have scored 31, 31 and 34 points, respectively, in those victories, as they have struggled to overcome a defense that entered the game ranked 27th in the league.
This game shaped up as a daunting matchup for the Falcons, as they have floundered when it comes to protecting quarterback Matt Ryan all season and Buffalo was one of five teams tied for the league lead in sacks. True to form, Buffalo sacked Ryan a season-high (as allowed by Atlanta) six times and also hit him officially nine times. Ryan has been sacked 11 times in the Falcons’ last two games, as New Orleans sacked him five times in a 17-13 loss on Nov. 21. (He also has been officially hit 19 times in those two games.)
Nonetheless, Ryan was able to complete 28 of 47 passes for 311 yards — his most since Week 5 — and he also threw a touchdown with any interceptions. The Falcons also rushed the ball for 151 yards on 30 carries, marking only the third time this season they have run the ball for more than 100 yards.
In one of the game’s key plays, the Falcons trailed by 31-24 and Ryan had driven the Falcons into the red zone with under two minutes left in the game. After Steven Jackson ran four yards to the Bills’ 1-yard line, wide receiver Harry Douglas received an illegal hands to the face penalty against the Bills’ Aaron Williams. That set back the Falcons’ to the Bills’ 16 but this time Douglas drew a controversial call against Nickell Robey, who grabbed Douglas’ jersey and was called for defensive pass interference while Douglas seemed to push off himself. Jackson ran the ball in from the 1 on the next play to tie the game.
On the same day, the Falcons officially were eliminated from playoff contention. In the big picture, it made an ugly season a little less ugly.