ATLANTA — The NFL may be home to the biggest, strongest, toughest and most skilled football players on the planet.
But there are still days when the words "competitive" and "balance" lose all meaning after the opening coin toss.
Take Thursday’s nationally televised demolition at the Georgia Dome. The Atlanta Falcons, just four days removed from a desultory road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, ran roughshod over a lifeless Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad, dismantling their NFC South brethren 56-14 — while nearly claiming the most decisive victory in franchise history.
(In case you’re wondering … the 1973 Falcons crushed the Saints, 62-7.)
How one-sided was this plundering? At some point in the third quarter — after reserve tailback Antone Smith was barely touched during his 38-yard TD run, boosting the Falcons’ lead to 56 — a writer’s once-random thoughts concentrated on the following notion:
Would an elite-level college team, like Alabama, Auburn, Oregon or defending national champion Florida State, put up a better fight than the Bucs on Thursday? Heck, would Georgia State — which shares the dome with Atlanta’s NFL team — have posted a better showing on this night?
That’s how bad things were for Lovie Smith’s Bucs (0-3). For one evening, it’s fair to wonder if their talent and preparation levels might have matched that of a college team which recently upgraded … to the Sun Belt Conference.
But enough about the Bucs (mercifully). For one night, the Falcons defense matched wits with the club’s more celebrated offense, holding Tampa Bay to zero first downs in the opening quarter and just two by halftime.
(All told, the Buccaneers would tally just 10 first downs and 217 total yards.)
And with back-to-back roadies against the Vikings (Sept. 28) and Giants (Oct. 5) — two of the NFL’s least productive offenses right now — why can’t the Falcons extend this feeling of stout, ball-hawking euphoria for another 17 days or so?
The defense also produced a score during that first-half flurry, the result of safety Kemal Ishmael’s 23-yard pick-six off beleaguered Bucs QB Josh McCown. With Ishmael’s leaping grab/easy touchdown, the 2014 Falcons tied the franchise mark for most points in the first quarter (21).
Special teams played a role in the blowout win, as well, with Devin Hester breaking Deion Sanders’ all-time return-TD record — off a 62-yard punt-return touchdown in the second quarter.
As luck would have it, Sanders worked the game as part of the CBS/NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football crew.
Upon fielding the low-lining, career-defining punt, Hester made a couple of zig-zag moves and then sprinted down the left sideline — untouched — for the record-breaking score.
Adding to the fun, he began high-stepping his way to the end zone around the 20-yard line … a tribute to the Hall of Famer Sanders, who also doubles as Hester’s mentor.
(For what it’s worth, Hester received a "showboating" penalty on his punt-return TD. But that’s a mere footnote to a record-shattering night — just like Hester’s 20-yard scoring run just seven minutes prior to the punt-return TD.)
"(Sanders) was just so happy," recalled Hester in the postgame media scrum. "You know … he almost pulled a hamstring sprinting toward the end zone with me. I love that guy … he (was) very emotional about the situation, too."
Hester was rather candid about the internal stress he and his family had been enduring since last season (with the Bears), in anticipation of breaking Sanders’ record. The Hester clan has basically kept the champagne on ice for 12 NFL games (the duration of Hester’s last return TD, including Thursday).
"It’s a lot of pressure," concedes Hester, who has scored on 14 punt returns, five kickoffs and one missed-field-goal return in his sterling nine-year career. "Every game, getting ready to get dressed and play and hear your family and friends, and your Instagram and stuff, with guys (saying), ‘You will break the record this weekend.’"
"That is a lot of pressure," said Hester.
You know what isn’t pressure? Leading 56-0 in an NFL-sanctioned regular season game.
"I’ve never experienced that type of lead in the National Football League," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "We did some really good things. … I want to say it: (This win will have) no bearing on what happens when we get on that plane (next Saturday) and go to Minnesota. (But) we’ll take it."
* * *
Forgive the Good Will Hunting inferences, but it’s not the Falcons’ fault the Buccaneers failed to prepare for this supposedly crucial division clash.
It’s not their fault.
It’s not their fault.
From the get-go, quarterback Matt Ryan (286 yards passing, three TDs) had ample time to find Julio Jones (nine catches, 161 yards, two TDs) and a host of supporting talent for sizable vertical gains.
And when those passing lanes were momentarily scuttled, the diverse Atlanta rushing corps of Steven Jackson (54 yards, one TD), Antone Smith (50 yards, one TD), Devonta Freeman (team-high 11 carries) and Hester (45 total yards, one TD) helped bridge the gap to a wildly successful and coolly efficient night of offense — in the form of 26 first downs and 488 total yards.
In Ryan’s world, that efficiency entailed just three incompletions and a near- flawless passer rating of 155.9 — a personal best for one game.
(We don’t have enough time — or interest, for that matter — to explain why a "perfect" passer rating is 158.2. It’s the sports equivalent to the Dewey Decimal System.)
"(It was) a fun night … I thought we did a great of (starting fast) collectively, all three phases," said Ryan, respectfully oblivious to the 42-point victory margin. He later added: "Our objective is to try and score every time we touch the ball."
Of Atlanta’s six offensive touchdowns, only one scoring drive covered more than six plays. And yet, the Falcons (2-1) still enjoyed decisive gains with total plays (65-57) and time of possession (5-minute, 18-second differential) — even though it’s hard to recall a single offensive play in the lightning-fast fourth quarter.
Tampa Bay waited until the final quarter to put a dent into one of its most humiliating defeats in club history — and that includes a 26-game losing skid from 1976-77, when the expansion Bucs were shut out 11 times and often cannon fodder for the rest of the NFL.
Second-year QB Mike Glennon, subbing for McCown (injured thumb), found Vincent Jackson for a 3-yard touchdown reception with 8:46 left in the game, eliciting a smattering of boos from the remaining Georgia Dome faithful — many of whom wanted to see the Falcons record their first shutout since 2012 (a 34-0 thrashing of the New York Giants).
The Bucs then followed that up with a pick-six from Danny Lansanah (off Falcons QB T.J. Yates), capping the overall scoring tally at 70 points.
Of course, many fans never saw the Bucs’ game-ending flurry. The previously raucous crowd left the scene early — in anticipation of a Friday work/school day — secure in the knowledge that 56-point leads, while short-lived in this case, never fall prey to miracle comebacks.