• Nobody, not even the bumbling 1-15 Miami Dolphins, endured what the Atlanta Falcons endured in 2007. The disgrace of Michael Vick started it all, and the desertion of Bobby Petrino finished it. It was a year of unceasing infamy for a franchise that has been no stranger to failure in its first 42 mostly star-crossed seasons.
The Falcons of last year lost their starting quarterback to prison, their head coach to the Liars Hall of Fame and a good deal of their long-suffering fan base to disillusionment and disappointment. Oh, and did we mention that 12 defeats in 16 games only added to the sense of gloom and doom that pervaded everything the Falcons touched?
So, for my money, there's no better story unfolding in the NFL this season than the one in Atlanta, where the new-look Falcons have surged into a first-place tie in the tough NFC South thanks to a roster, coaching staff and front office that isn't burdened or concerned with last year's debacles.
During my early August trip to the Falcons training camp, I had a hard time remembering the last time I saw a team trying out so many new faces in key places. But if I had to rate them in terms of their importance to the Falcons' early-season success thus far, I'm not sure what order I would place new head coach Mike Smith, new general manager Tom Dimitroff, new franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, new lead running back Michael Turner and new kicker Jason Elam. But I know this much: All of them have done their jobs remarkably well and added a key component to Atlanta's turnaround.
Six weeks into the NFL's 2008 regular season and there are Arthur Blank's resurgent Birds, tied for first place with Carolina and Tampa Bay at 4-2 in the NFC South. And Sunday's dramatic 22-20 comeback win over Chicago -- snatched from the jaws of defeat on Elam's last-play-of-the-game 48-yard field goal -- was the capper to this season, to date.
Not only did the victory enable Atlanta to match its 2007 win total of four and give the Falcons their first victory over a team with a winning record -- Atlanta previously had beaten the Lions, Chiefs and the then-.500 Packers -- but also it showed the mettle of Smith's club. The Falcons rallied from a 20-19 deficit despite getting the ball back at its own 44 with just 11 seconds remaining.
This was the kind of game, once it had been given away to the Bears, that a young team with a rookie quarterback seldom finds a way to win. Up 19-10 for most of the fourth quarter, the Falcons subsequently blew the chance to put Chicago away with a chip-shot 33-yarder from Elam, then paid dearly for it when the Bears stormed 77 yards in 11 plays in the final minutes, taking a one-point lead on Kyle Orton's 17-yard touchdown pass to Rashied Davis with just 11 ticks remaining.
The Falcons should have been dejected, deflated and just about defeated. But they weren't. Maybe they don't know any better. And when Ryan hit Michael Jenkins with a clutch 26-yard deep-out to get the ball to the Chicago 30 with one second remaining, Elam and the Falcons both got their shot at redemption. They didn't miss it either, and now we all should start hearing and learning quite a bit more about the amazing transformation that's underway in Atlanta.
"[This game] confirms what we are doing as a football team,'' said Smith, whose Falcons have won consecutive games for the first time. "It is confirmation that the way we've been going about our business is the right way to go about it. We are still in the process. We're a young football team that's learning every time we go on the field.''
These Falcons have somehow put the misery of 2007 behind them. And for a happy moment at least, no other team in the NFC South is ahead of them.
• If you're Bears head coach Lovie Smith, you know your team probably didn't deserve to win that one, after being out-played for most of the game. But you've still got to be sick about the decision to have kicker Robbie Gould squib his final kickoff, which Falcons rookie Harry Douglas picked up at the Atlanta 34 and returned 10 critical yards.
Starting at the Falcons' 44 with 11 seconds left gave Matt Ryan and company just enough time to complete that long out-pattern to Jenkins and position Elam for the game-winning kick.
When only a long field goal can beat you, Lovie, why not have Gould boom it deep?
• I'll have more to say about this in my next monthly Coaches on the Hot Seat update, but I think we can add Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to the list of those who will be in-demand head coaching candidates come the NFL's firing/hiring season.
Mularkey, the ex-Bills head coach, has done a superb job thus far with an Atlanta offense that loves to run the ball but also lets the rookie Ryan throw it when he has to. Who says you can't win with a rookie passer? Ryan was a sharp 22 of 30 for a career-high 301 yards and a touchdown against the Bears. Through six starts, Ryan has five touchdowns, three interceptions, 1,164 yards passing and a solid 82.9 QB rating.
• How much would Atlanta have been hurting if the Falcons had lost to Chicago on Elam's botched 33-yard field attempt with 2:50 remaining? The ex-Broncos kicker made 5-of-6 field goal attempts against the Bears, and he entered the game 11 for 11 on the season -- none of which would have salved the wound.
• For the first time all season, we recognized Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne,Marvin Harrison and the rest of the Colts passing game. Not sure who those imposters were in jersey Nos. 18, 87 and 88 through the first five games of the year, but Indy apparently will be heard from in the AFC South after all.
• When you watch Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco throw three interceptions, lose two fumbles and absorb four sacks from the Colts, you have that much more respect for what Ryan is accomplishing in Atlanta. Flacco is looking very, very rookie-like the past two games -- and parts of three, if you count his shaky third quarter in that Monday-night loss at Pittsburgh.
Makes you wonder a bit why Ravens head coach John Harbaugh felt the need to come out last week and name Flacco his starting quarterback for the rest of the season, thereby blunting any potential QB controversy in the weeks ahead with the still-recovering Troy Smith. If Flacco continues to take these kind of steps back, we'll see Smith at some point, no matter what Harbaugh announced.
• Give it another week or two, and the Dolphins' "Wildcat'' formation will have its own NFL Films anthology. I have to admit I didn't see the Ronnie Brown to Ricky Williams to Chad Pennington flea-flicker variation coming. Then again, neither did the Texans.
• That settles it for me, although it has been my hunch for a few weeks now: The Broncos are headed back to the pack in the AFC West. Next week, a trip to New England looms.
• Consider this: The Eagles' 23-point fourth quarter on Sunday, capping a 40-26 road win over the Niners, surpassed any output that Philly had in its last three games: A 15-6 home win against Pittsburgh, a 24-20 loss at Chicago and 23-17 home loss to Washington.
• Let's just call this a new league rule: Never, ever try and ice Dallas kicker Nick Folk with one of those just-before-the-snap timeouts. It's just not worth it. Isn't that right, Ken Whisenhunt?
• That wasn't a Sean Morey punt block that decided the Cardinals' overtime win over the Cowboys. That was a punt-mugging. If Mat McBriar never even gets to punt the ball, can it really be called a block?
• The NFC East and the NFC South are comprised of combined eight teams, and all eight are at .500 or better through six weeks. Every team in the two divisions has either three or four victories, at least until the Giants dispatch of the Browns on Monday night to improve to 5-0.
• On the flip side, West Coast football in the NFL is ... pathetic. The Seahwaks (1-4), 49ers (2-4), Raiders (1-4) and Chargers (2-3) were a combined 6-15 heading into San Diego's game against New England on Sunday night. The Chargers will rebound at some point later this season, but the other three teams are going nowhere in 2008.
• I'm sure the Cardinals are jacked to be 4-2 and leading their division by a full two games. And seeing Whisenhunt lap the field to give Arizona fans a high-five after their overtime victory was fun. But year in and year out, the Cardinals seem to be one of those clubs that always keeps both teams in the game at all times.
• These things I know after watching Week 6 games:
-- Jeff Garcia gives the Bucs a much better chance to win on a consistent basis than Brian Griese. Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden should close down his doghouse for good and play Garcia the rest of the way.
-- Kyle Orton is a much better fit for what the Bears offense tries to do than Rex Grossman. Even Grossman has to see that by now.
• Anyone out there still think Reggie Bush is big-name underachiever? Not this season. Four touchdowns in his past two games, and eight total in six games speaks volumes. He has been finding the end zone as a rusher, a pass-catcher and a return man. What more do we want?
• I have to admit that maybe the Rams knew what they were doing in elevating Jim Haslett to their head coaching slot. Beating the Redskins anywhere these days is no small feat, and Haslett might just have a bit of the fire St. Louis was lacking.
• Speaking of comebacks, Matt Schaub's game-winning, three-yard quarterback draw with three seconds to go was a thing of beauty. And, man, did the Texans need a win after last week's self-demolition against the Colts. It's impossible to know how ugly things might have gotten for Gary Kubiak and his Houston players had they remained winless going into Week 7.
• The Redskins offense went five full games and 14:02 of Sunday's first quarter against the Rams without turning the ball over this season, making Washington just the third team since 1933 to have fewer than two turnovers after five games (the Redskins did lose one fumble on a punt return).
So naturally, Washington's offense proceeded to lose three fumbles in a span of four first-half possessions against St. Louis, taking just 15:49 of clock time to lose its grip. The third turnover, a fumble by guard Pete Kendall, who caught a deflected Jason Campbell pass near the line of scrimmage, was turned into a 75-yard touchdown return by Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.
• Don't be misled by the Saints' .500 record. Drew Brees is playing in his own league right now at the NFL's glamour position. Without No. 1 receiver Marques Colston or tight end Jeremy Shockey in the lineup, Brees continues to move the chains at will. He was a sick 26 of 30 for 320 yards and three touchdowns against the Raiders on Sunday, and when he says, as he did after the game: "I feel we're only scratching the surface,'' it's not hyperbole.
• Oakland might have had a new head coach on Sunday in Tom Cable, but it's not accurate to say his club looked like the same old mistake-prone Raiders. Nope, they were much worse. You think Al Davis already misses Lane Kiffin?
• On a day when both 0-4 St. Louis and Houston earned their first wins in dramatic last-second fashion, it's refreshing to know we can still count on the winless ineptitude of 0-5 Cincinnati and Detroit.
• Not the most triumphant of homecomings to Louisiana for JaMarcus Russell, the former LSU star. The Raiders quarterback was a ghastly 13 of 35 (37.1 percent) for 159 yards and an interception in Oakland's 34-3 loss. No matter who did or didn't want to draft him within the Raiders organization, that's a shaky showing for a quarterback who has already had three games with a completion percentage of 47.4 or lower.
• I guess we shouldn't be surprised, but Warrick Dunn can still get it done. I didn't think much of anything but nice career symmetry when Tampa Bay re-acquired Dunn last offseason -- after his Atlanta years were over -- but his 22-carry, 115-yard rushing day against a tough Carolina defense proves that he can still handle the lead-back role on any given Sunday.
• Did you see that Tony Romo "Tuck Rule" fumble in the end zone that was overturned by replay review, costing the Cardinals a touchdown? It was just as bogus looking as the original Tom Brady call in the January 2002 Snow Bowl game against the Raiders.
I don't care what the rule says, if it looks like a fumble, and quacks like a fumble, it should be a fumble. Enough said.
• That Cardinals' pass rush, by the way, made Romo miserable on Sunday in the desert. Arizona defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Bertrand Berry were in Romo's personal space for most of the day.
• One more strong game and I was ready to write that we shouldn't be overlooking the Panthers among the NFC's elite. Uh, never mind.
• What a week for the NFL police blotter files:
-- Marvin Harrison sued by a man who says he was shot by Harrison and by someone using Harrison's gun in Philadelphia in April.
-- A first-degree murder charge was finally brought against a 25-year-old man in the drive-by-shooting death of Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams on New Year's Day 2007.
-- Pacman Jones scuffles with one of his own bodyguards in a Dallas hotel men's room, drawing the wrong kind of attention to himself once again, and perhaps giving us a sneak peek of the beginning of the end of his Cowboys tenure.
-- Former Broncos, Titans, Bills running back Travis Henry is released from jail after posting $400,000 bail on his federal drug charges.
-- Jacksonville receiver Matt Jones got a break when he learned his cocaine charge will be heard in drug court in Fayetteville, Ark., rather than in the regular criminal system. That means even if convicted, Jones won't have that black mark on his record.
Most of which could not have made the suits in the league office all that happy as they perused the week's headlines.