The Atlanta passing game was almost nonexistent for about 57 minutes Sunday. Yet somehow, the Falcons won.
That's about the shortest possible synopsis of how things have changed for that team under new head coach Dan Quinn this season. Until a clutch touchdown drive late in the game orchestrated mostly by QB Matt Ryan, the Falcons could not solve the Washington pass defense. Ryan found himself flustered often by collapsing pockets and made poor decisions or throws when he did have time.
The defense and run game kept Atlanta in it, though, against a Washington team that could not pull away. Cornerback Robert Alford then stole a victory for the now 5–0 Falcons by picking off an errant Kirk Cousins pass in overtime and taking it back for six.
There is room to scoff at the Atlanta schedule thus far (four games with the downtrodden NFC East and a home game against Houston). But pinning the Falcons' undefeated start all on those matchups would be an error. This is a team learning anew how to win games, and doing it in a hurry.
To wit: the touchdown drive Ryan put together late in the fourth quarter, with his team facing a 16–12 deficit. Ryan was sitting on 188 yards passing and two interceptions prior to that possession, then ripped off 66 yards through the air (and another eight on a scramble) to set up a Devonta Freeman touchdown.
Make that two Devonta Freeman touchdowns. On a third-and-2 from the Washington 13 yard line, Ryan appeared to hit Freeman for the go-ahead score. However, Freeman failed to control the ball all the way through the process of falling to the ground, and it was ruled an incompletion on review. On the next snap, Ryan turned around and drilled a seven-yard completion in to Roddy White. Freeman then scored on the ground for a 19–16 lead.
Washington dealt Atlanta what could have been another crushing blow seconds later, hitting a field goal of its own to force overtime, after a frantic drive. Atlanta answered again, bringing heat at Cousins on a second-and-8 near midfield, leading to the walk-off pick-six.
Was it pretty? Hell no. The Falcons turned it over three times, doinked two field-goal attempts off the uprights and surrendered a pair of scoring drives when a defensive stop might have ended it.
Does any of that matter now? Not really. Atlanta is 5–0 and sitting atop the NFC South, a half-game in front of Carolina, who's on a bye this week.
Winning consistently is a feat in itself these days, no matter how it occurs. Just look around the NFL at the parity—some might say "mediocrity"—breeding unpredictable results on a regular basis. Chicago won in Kansas City on Sunday, Indianapolis claimed a Thursday night win with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Last week, the Giants won in Buffalo and St. Louis left Arizona a surprise winner.
The 2015 landscape features a handful of teams able to claim they might be elite, and then a jumble of clubs hoping to stand out in some positive fashion. That Atlanta now has shown it can do so even when Ryan, Julio Jones and the rest of its aerial assault is misfiring is without question a noteworthy development.
In fact, Washington and Atlanta are not all that far apart, despite being separated by three games in the win/loss columns. The Redskins rallied for a win over Philadelphia last week, but this Sunday's result and a Week 1 loss to Miami have to feel like missed opportunities. They could have won either, which would have dramatically shifted their outlook through five weeks.
They were in position to lock up a win over the Falcons, too. Ryan's second interception of the day put Washington in the red zone, already up a point with less than six minutes to play. But Atlanta's defense forced a field goal instead, giving Ryan a chance.
Rare are the days when everything clicks at once, even for the best teams the NFL has to offer. Sunday, in addition to their two special-teams gaffes, the Falcons just did not have their usual mojo through the air.
In the end, it didn't matter. Atlanta found a way.