Thursday September 18th, 2014

The Atlanta Falcons moved to 2-1 on the season with a 56-14 demolition of the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night. In case you missed anything, Chris Burke has the highlights (Devin Hester!), lowlights (the entire Buccaneers team) and everything in between.

Here are three thoughts:

1. Let's hope that was as bad as it gets for an NFL game this year

Somewhere along the line, probably about the time Tampa Bay was flagged for a neutral-zone infraction on the extra point that made it 28-0, this game crossed the line from an entertaining blowout to just plain sad. Yes, it was fun to watch Devin Hester high-step into the end zone as he broke his mentor Deion Sanders' return TD record, but at no point in this game did the Buccaneers show any semblance of competitiveness, despite entering Thursday's matchup with a division rival at 0-2.

Were it not for a mini-run in the fourth quarter -- a Vincent Jackson touchdown followed by a Danny Lansah pick-six -- this would have been the worst loss in Tampa Bay history. Twice before the Buccaneers had been beaten by 45 points (San Francisco in 2011 and Oakland in 1999).

NFL
Devin Hester breaks Deion Sanders' return TD record

Atlanta certainly deserves credit for keeping its foot on the gas, at least through the first three quarters. It would have been easy to let up some after racing out to a three- or four-touchdown lead.

2. Can the Falcons take this act on the road?

It is far more unusual to find an NFL team that regularly excels away from home than it is to pick out one that slumps in unfriendly confines. Still, the Falcons have bordered on the extreme when it comes to their play fluctuating based on the venue. Thursday night's win moved Matt Ryan to 38-10 in the Georgia Dome. He is one game under .500, 24-25, away from it.

After disastrous start vs. Falcons, hand injury forces Josh McCown out of game

The Atlanta team that we've now seen twice in front of its home fans -- Thursday and in a Week 1 win over New Orleans -- looks extremely dangerous, particularly in the NFC South since the Buccaneers already appear to be playing for next year and the Saints are off to an 0-2 start.

The Falcons' schedule, however, is about to test this team's resolve. Five of their next seven games are true road games. A sixth will be played in London against Detroit, in what's technically a "home game" for the Falcons. On paper, all of the away contests could be winnable: Minnesota, the Giants, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Carolina. Even a couple of victories in there, coupled with how the Falcons are rolling in Atlanta, would at least get this team into wild-card contention.

A Week 2 trip to Cincinnati, with a banged-up Atlanta offensive line, was a tough measuring stick. The back-to-back visits to Minnesota and New York in Weeks 4 and 5 will tell us a lot more about the 2014 Falcons.

3. Lovie Smith is in all sorts of trouble

Is Smith in danger of a one-and-done stop in Tampa Bay? It's still too early to consider Smith in jeopardy of being fired, even with his team at 0-3 ... and in light of Thursday's debacle. After all, Smith did go 5-11 in his first season as Chicago's head coach before following up with an NFC North title and then a Super Bowl trip.

Clearly, there is a lot of ground to cover between what happened Thursday night and Tampa Bay presenting itself as a legitimate contender. This was embarrassing from the Falcons' opening drive, in which they marched nearly unimpeded through a confused Tampa Bay defense, right until the final buzzer. Being without Gerald McCoy and Doug Martin will only buy Smith so much leeway in the outcome.

Smith, cutting straight to the point on his team's performance: "Couldn't stop them on defense. Couldn't score on points on offense. Special teams ... we couldn't get anything done there."

There was reason to doubt if Josh McCown could catch lightning in a bottle a second time this season, following up on his stellar 2013 campaign in Chicago. The Buccaneers' brass still thought it had plenty of punch on offense to complement a defense that Smith was supposed to improve. The defensive side, after all, is where Smith hung his hat throughout his tenure in Chicago. There is little reason for optimism either spot at the moment, with the defense arguably in worse shape than the bumbling offense.

Oh, and Lovie: Do. Not. Kick. It. To. Devin. Hester.

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Second-half MVP: Julio Jones.

Snubbed Jones in favor of Devin Hester in the first half. He made himself impossible to ignore again on a twisting, Willie Mays-like over-the-shoulder touchdown catch. Lest there was any hope that Tampa Bay might somehow make this one interesting in the second half, Jones' TD, which put his team up by 42, ended it.

Jones' final line: nine catches, 161 yards, two touchdowns. Most impressive, Jones posted those numbers without Roddy White in the lineup drawing attention to the other side of the field, and with No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas exiting early with his own injury. Tampa Bay should have had all eyes on Jones. Even then, it might not have mattered.

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Second-half LVP: Evan Dietrich-Smith.

Let's see here. There was the ball that Dietrich-Smith snapped over Mike Glennon's head for a fumble, which Atlanta recovered on the Tampa Bay 2-yard line. There was another snap Dietrich-Smith spiked off his own backside. The icing on the cake came in the form of two unnecessary roughness penalties -- one for diving on a prone Falcons player, another for headbutting. No doubt a fine will follow in the coming days.

Must-see GIF: Pretty much sums it all up ...


First-half MVP: Devin Hester.

Julio Jones caught eight passes for 121 yards and a TD before halftime, so he probably deserves a quick mention here. Hester, though, contributed in a number of ways, including as he always has in his NFL career: on special teams.

With the Falcons already up 28-0, Hester took a punt 62 yards to the house for his 20th career return touchdown -- breaking the tie between he and Deion Sanders for the NFL record in that category. Sanders was on hand as part of the Thursday night commentary crew, and Hester paid tribute to him by reenacting Sanders' signature high-stepping celebration across the goal line. (He was flagged 15 yards for taunting.)

Hester also scored on the ground, taking a handoff and racing nearly untouched to the end zone from 20 yards out. He even forced a fumble, stripping the ball from Mark Barron after an Atlanta turnover to get the ball back for the Falcons. 

All three of Hester's key first-half plays can be seen below.

First-half LVP: Josh McCown.

Tampa Bay's quarterback was an absolute mess, even though he had time to set on most of his passes. The most damning sequence came late in the first quarter. McCown threw high for an incompletion to Vincent Jackson on first down, overshot Robert Herron on second down, then locked on to his receiver and tossed a pick-six on third down.

McCown finished the first half 5-of-12 for a pitiful 58 yards, plus an interception. Making matters worse, McCown headed to the locker room a few minutes before halftime after twice banging his right (throwing hand) on a helmet. Mike Glennon took over for him.

Must-see GIF: All Hester, all the time. First up, his receiver-turned-defender play on Mark Barron, which saved possession for Atlanta despite a fumble.

Next up, Hester's first TD, a 20-yard run that ended with Hester surprising a security guard with a friendly hug. 

GIF: Devin Hester scores a TD, gives a security guard a big b... on Twitpic

Finally, the showstopper: Hester's record-setting punt return touchdown.

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