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Zopf: For the Falcons, age ain't nothing but a number

POSTED: September 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.

So this is how it’s going to be for the Atlanta Falcons.

Against good teams the performance is mediocre. Against bad teams, the performance is top-notch.

But hey, I guess beggars can’t be choosers, right?

Prior to the start of the season some thought the Falcons would struggle to win any games, but in the 38-14 dismantling of the NFL’s youngest team, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Falcons looked like a veteran, playoff-bound team. Not a team whose roster’s average age is just one year older than that of the Chiefs.

Against Kansas City, the offense was clicking and the defense was absolutely dominating, with three interceptions (one for a touchdown), and two sacks.

From the stands, or sitting at home, you would never know that the average age of the Falcons was just 26.55. On Sunday this team looked poised, prepared and like a team that was fighting for a division title.

But we all know they are not winning the division this year, and that’s what made Sunday’s performance so satisfying.

For starters, it proved that Week 1’s crushing of the Detroit Lions wasn’t a fluke, it proved that last week’s loss to Tampa Bay may have actually helped the team, and it showed the few people in attendance that these Falcons are headed in the right direction.

And you know who was at the center of it all? That’s right, the young guys.

Michael Turner, 26, rushed 23 times for 104 yards and a career-high three touchdowns and rookie Matt Ryan, 23, completed 12-of-18 of his passes for a touchdown and zero interceptions, ending the day with a quarterback rating of 120.6.

For just his third start, that’s pretty impressive.

"I think our young guys performed extremely well," coach Mike Smith said.

But again, this was against the Chiefs, a team that would have trouble stopping the offense’s of Gainesville and Buford let alone the Falcons. But like the old coaching

adage says, "A win’s a win, it doesn’t matter who it’s against."

And for the Falcons, those wins this year are going to come against teams like the Chiefs, and their Week 1 victim, the lowly Lions.

But who cares?

At the beginning of the year, Atlanta, and not Detroit or Kansas City, was dubbed the worst team in the NFL. Some pundits predicted a one-win season, and said that the franchise was making a mistake in starting a rookie quarterback in a rebuilding year.

Wrong, and wrong.

In just three weeks, the Falcons have proven that they are not only better than advertised, but that Ryan is fully capable of running an NFL offense successfully.

He proved that in Week 1 and confirmed it Sunday against the Chiefs. Yeah, there was some mistakes made against Tampa Bay in Week 2, but those mistakes came in the first half, and althought the team still lost, the lessons learned against the Buccaneers were evident Sunday.

Here’s the lesson, and the formula for a successful Falcons’ season: Run the ball, don’t make mistakes, and when it’s there, take a chance down field to your playmaker Roddy White. The 26-year-old White — another young Falcon that is coming into his own — recorded his 150th reception of his young career Sunday, and has clearly become Ryan’s favorite, and most reliable, target.

After a dropped pass in the first quarter, White never dropped another, and ended the game with five receptions for 119 yards and one touchdown, a 70-yard catch from Ryan in the first quarter

White’s performance is more proof that the Falcons are headed in the right direction.

Even more proof is the amount of desire that the team showed late in the game.

On fourth-and-one, and the Chiefs on the cusp of turning a 17-point game into a 10-point game, Atlanta’s defense came up huge (like it had all day) and stopped Chiefs’ running back Larry Johnson short of the end zone.

Last year, the defense would have just rolled over and given up. This year, things are different.

"We’re right where we want to be," said Ryan, who’s Falcons are 2-1 and atop the NFC South standings. "Obviously we’d like to be 3-0, but we’re right where we want to be after three games, but we have to continue to keep winning."

Now, is this team going to win 10 games and make the playoffs? Probably not.

Will it beat the upper-echelon teams like Green Bay in two weeks? Probably not. But what it will do is give the fan base something to cheer about. And based on the attendance Sunday, that’s certainly something this franchise needs.

The best way to get those fans re-interested in the Falcons is to win. It doesn’t matter how they win, or who they beat, as long as they win, the fans will respond.

And when they respond, and start showing up to home games, the fans will realize just what owner Arthur Blank, Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are doing here: Building a team around young, talented players that will ultimately allow them to completely forget about the past and live for the future.

After last year’s debacle of a season, that’s what this team, and this city needs.



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