ATLANTA — The Falcons’ gains in 2008 have been well-chronicled. They’ve gone from a local surprise to a nationwide feel-good story.
But more than rallying from 2007’s turmoil, more even doubling last year’s win total, Sunday’s 13-10 overtime win against Tampa Bay showed not only how far this team has come, it also demonstrated how they’ve done it - with bold moves for franchise players, shrewd free agent pickups and the right coach.
It’s all been masterminded by first-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons’ man behind the curtain.
In less than a year on the job, he’s taken a franchise that couldn’t get out of its own way, on or off the field, and turned it into a team now good enough to survive a frustrating offensive performance, highlighted by Michael Turner’s 152 rushing yards, but confounded by mistakes.
Quarterback Matt Ryan showed his rookie roots for the first time in weeks, throwing a pair of costly interceptions. Then a fumble at the goal line erased a sorely needed Falcons touchdown. And with time dwindling in the fourth quarter, a blocked punt put Tampa Bay in position for the win.
That’s enough to sink plenty of NFL playoff-bound teams, but the Atlanta defense and the Georgia Dome crowd would let the Falcons capsize.
The defense, with help of one of John Abraham’s three sacks on the day, kept the Buccaneers out of the end zone and forced the game-tying field goal.
"He’s a great player," Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said of Abraham, "particularly on the surface in that noise."
That noise is another sign of how far the Falcons have come. The Georgia Dome on Sunday looked and sounded like a wholly different place than it was three months ago.
In the season opener against Detroit, the relative few in attendance had plenty to cheer about – when they weren’t stunned into silence by the Falcons’ impressive offensive showing - there just weren’t enough fans there to make much of a difference.
By contrast, there’s no denying the impact a true sellout crowd had on Sunday’s game. The noise, especially in the game’s earliest and latest stages, seemed to overwhelm Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers committed five false start penalties on third downs.
"I can’t say enough about the crowd," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It was electric in there."
The crowd was loud because they’ve been given reason to believe in this team. They’ve been given reason to believe because of the way the team has been constructed.
Since his hiring of Smith, Dimitroff has been right every step of the way. Right to bring in Turner, who’s enjoying of the best seasons in franchise history. Right to take Ryan with the third pick in the draft. Right to overhaul the roster and fill it out with free agents like Coy Wire and Domonique Foxworth. They aren’t the names you’ll see often in headlines, but without either, there’s a good chance the Falcons wouldn’t have won Sunday.
And after a crucial Foxworth pass break-up on third down, the quick-smiling Smith showed his fiery former linebacker side, getting in the face of Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant.
"Antonio was on our sideline," Smith deadpanned, "and I politely asked him to go back over to his sideline."
It showed why he’s the right man for this team and it showed part of the reason why this team is now win game’s even when "we’re not hitting on all cylinders," Smith said.
"I didn’t see that play," Ryan said of Smith’s run-in with Bryant. "But it sounds about right. He’s intense, and he’s a fun guy to play for."
Sunday’s win guarantees the Falcons a winning season, and more importantly keeps them clearly in the mix for the NFC playoffs.
If they weren’t able to pull if off, the postseason would have been a long shot. That they were able to win it under when just about everything was going wrong, only makes it more impressive.