For a few minutes in Detroit on Sunday, it appeared the Lions were atop the NFC after knocking off the conference’s defending champions. A pass from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate, ruled a touchdown from two yards out, put the Lions ahead 32–30 with an extra point from Matt Prater pending and just eight seconds left in the game.
There was only one problem, at least from the Lions perspective. As Tate caught the pass at the one-yard line, he slid to the ground. At the same time, Falcons defensive back Brian Poole got his hand on Tate’s shoulder, which kept Tate out of the end zone. Since the play was reviewed and the Lions didn’t have a timeout, the rule book called for a 10-second runoff. With that, Detroit’s brief stay at the top of the NFC came to an end. For at least one more week, last season’s king remains the king.
Three thoughts from the Falcons 30–26 win in Detroit.
1. There’s no Super Bowl hangover for the Falcons. The Falcons are now 3–0, with wins over the Packers and Lions, both of which look like real contenders in the NFC. Their other win came against a Bears team that just knocked off the Steelers on Sunday. They’ve scored at least 30 points in two of their wins and are 2–0 on the road. This team isn’t going to fall short where recent Super Bowl losers have. The Falcons are just as dangerous as they were a year ago, if not more so.
Atlanta rode its explosive, efficient offense to the Super Bowl, but there were understandable concerns about its ability to repeat last year’s numbers after losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the head coaching gig in San Francisco. Those concerns have been safely put to bed. Matt Ryan threw three picks in the win over Detroit, but two of those went off his intended receiver’s hands. He racked up 294 yards, 8.4 yards per attempt and two touchdowns to offset those three picks. Devonta Freeman carried the ball 21 times for 106 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones had another seven catches for 91 yards, while Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu both found the end zone. Tevin Coleman totaled 89 yards on nine touches. Teams are still going to have an awfully tough time slowing down this offense, even with Shanahan on the other side of the country.
2. Detroit is for real. The Lions will have a nasty taste in their mouths after Sunday’s heartbreaking loss, but this is a team that will be in the thick of things in the NFC all year. What was most impressive about Sunday’s near win against the Falcons wasn’t that they almost handed the defending conference champions their first loss of the season, but that they did so without their A-game.
Matthew Stafford was off for most of the first half, and finished his day 25-of-45 for 264 yards, 5.9 YPA and one touchdown. They stayed committed to the run game as best they could, but Ameer Abdullah still had just 47 yards on 14 carries. The Falcons made Golden Tate work hard for everything, limiting him to 58 yards on seven catches, though he did get into the end zone on the other end of Stafford’s lone touchdown pass. T.J. Jones led the Lions with 63 yards receiving, and Eric Ebron had two ugly drops on what was a bad day for the fourth-year tight end.
That the Lions played that poorly and were still one yard away from beating arguably the best team in the conference says a lot about the team they can be. They benefitted significantly from a couple of fluky interceptions, but they made the most of those takeaways, as well. That’s what the best teams do. The Lions may place themselves in that group before long.
3. The Falcons aren’t all offense. Stafford wasn’t ineffective in the first half for no reason—the Falcons front seven made him uncomfortable all game, knocking him down seven times. Adrian Clayborne and Takkarist McKinley both sacked Stafford, and while those were the only two times he was brought down behind the line, they kept him out of his rhythm for much of the afternoon. They didn’t let Detroit get much of anything going on the ground, and kept Tate and Marvin Jones in front of them all game.
That, of course, came on the heels of holding Aaron Rodgers and the Packers mostly in check until they had their Week 2 win over the Packers well in hand, producing two takeaways, three sacks and one defensive touchdown. The Falcons are still going to make their way through the NFL on offense, but there’s more reason to believe in what Dan Quinn has done with this defense in his third year at the helm in Atlanta.