Falcons' strong finish vs. Pack must carry over to Steelers showdown
Even after their six-point loss at the hands of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, the Atlanta Falcons, by way of their Week 1 win over the Saints acting as a tie-breaker, are still in first place in the NFC South.
Pause for a moment to let it sit in: Atlanta is 5-8 and still in control of an NFL division with three weeks to play in the regular season.
Instead of apologizing for their record, and in lieu of putting too much weight on their horrifyingly bad first half against the Packers, the Falcons must use their solid effort in the second half as momentum to push this team next week as they host the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No one could have imagined that when the teams convened at halftime with the Falcons down 31-7, that with two minutes left in the game Atlanta would be down by just six points. At halftime the Packers had 22 first downs, the Falcons had run just 22 plays on offense.
It was as lopsided a half as the Falcons had played in some time.
Now forget those first 30 minutes. The rest of Atlanta's season must look like the final two quarters against the Packers if the Falcons want to make it into the playoffs.
Atlanta's fan base can still relish in the NFC South standings, and continue to blow Twitter up with the hashtag #FirstPlaceFalcons. But there are still three games to play.
The Falcons control their own destiny. If they play like they did in the final 30 minutes on Monday night, the promised land called the NFL playoffs will be their reward.
It starts with Atlanta's Monday-night spark plug: Julio Jones.
Jones had a good first half, catching five passes for 100 yards. But he erupted in the second half. With six receptions for 159 yards and a touchdown in the second half, Jones not only set a career high with 259 receiving yards and tied a personal baest with 11 grabs, he made Green Bay cornerbacks look silly and single-handedly propelled the Atlanta offense.
He also posted his second consecutive game with at least 10 catches, and has 448 receiving yards over his last two games. If you factor in just Jones' last two games, there are only 85 players in the league with more yards for their whole season.
But Jones does get to count every game he's played, and that means he leads the league in receiving with 1,428 yards. His yardage puts him at the top of the Falcons single-season record book for yardage as well.
But it's the 448 yards in the last two weeks that are important. Jones, who watched the final few minutes of the game from the sideline with a hip injury, needs to put up similar numbers against the Steelers to insure a victory.
Matt Ryan was also dialed in during the second half. Atlanta's quarterback improved on his 44.4 first-half passer rating to finish the game with 374 passing yards and four touchdown passes.
After looking befuddled in the first half, Ryan put forth one of his more miraculous efforts in a Falcons uniform. And that says a lot considering he earned the nickname "Matty Ice" for his fourth-quarter prowess.
The Falcons, who haven't been great at second-half adjustments, came out and began to chop away at the Packers' lead. Ten points in fewer than seven minutes to begin the second half fueled the comeback. But Green Bay kept extending the lead.
Atlanta got touchdowns from Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas in the fourth quarter, but the Packers scored 10 points in between to maintain. There weren't many comfortable fans at Lambeau Field with the way the Falcons were pushing in the second half, but that 24-point deficit at halftime was too much to overcome.
It's impossible to spot Green Bay a 31-7 lead and hope to catch up and win a football game. But the Falcons gave it a valiant effort.
The Falcons outscored Green Bay 30-12 in the second half. And Atlanta only allowed the Packers six first downs in that time span too. It wasn't a clean second half on defense -- Aaron Rodgers was able to paste 502 total yards on the board on Monday -- but the Falcons played with a impressive determination.
When Atlanta handed New Orleans an overtime loss in Week 1, it was an emotional win. When the Falcons slapped Tampa Bay around to the tune of a 42-point mauling, they thought is might be a muscle-flexing win.
Atlanta lost its next five games in a row, and is now in its current predicament. The Falcons are three games below .500, and need to win to make the playoffs.
But their Week 13 win over the first-place Arizona Cardinals was a confidence booster. The Falcons carried that mojo into Green Bay and were embarrassed in the first half.
They could have tucked their tails between their legs and took the beating. That wasn't what the Falcons did.
Atlanta fought back. And while the Falcons didn't win, their performance in the second half might have been more important -- more moving and confidence-instilling -- than any win on the resume to date.
Now the Falcons must take all that they learned in that second half against Green Bay, and replicate it.