FLOWERY BRANCH — Dan Quinn’s first year as coach of the Atlanta Falcons ended with a thud. The second half of this season has brought a much different result.
The Falcons have turned a 4-3 start into a 10-5 record, clinching their first postseason appearance and first NFC South title in four years. They’re within striking distance of a No. 2 playoff seed.
“We know there’s an opportunity for us there, and we’re going to go for it in the biggest way that we can,” Quinn said Monday.
Quinn has preached accountability since leaving Seattle as defensive coordinator to take charge of the Falcons. The process took longer than he hoped, but not as long as many projected after last year’s 8-8 finish.
Three home losses this year — the season opener against Tampa Bay, in overtime against San Diego, and an inexplicable meltdown against Kansas City — had that old doomsday feel.
But Sunday’s lopsided win at Carolina brought Quinn’s message into focus.
“For me, I so wanted it to happen overnight, that connection, but it didn’t,” Quinn said. “I did recognize it doesn’t happen in one week or just after training camp ends. It takes a while, and you need some of the struggles to go through. We’ve had those, and they’re not always comfortable, but they’re necessary.”
With the NFL’s top-scoring offense and a defense that’s become turnover-savvy, it might seem success wasn’t hard to come by. That hasn’t been the case.
As they close out the regular season this weekend against New Orleans, the Falcons have played one of the league’s tougher schedules and they’ve endured significant injuries.
Their best defensive player, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and starting tight end Jacob Tamme are out for the season. The same goes for key defenders Kemal Ishmael, Sean Weatherspoon and Derrick Shelby.
Starting rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell is trying to return from a concussion. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn played against Carolina after missing three games with a knee injury.
But Quinn’s team has overcome potential setbacks with elite performances from both its highest-paid and lowest-paid players.
“You can play well individually, but if the guy next to you is out of whack or not doing his part, it’s not going to come to life,” he said.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has settled into coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense to have an MVP-caliber season. Julio Jones is arguably the NFL’s best receiver.
Vic Beasley, the league leader in sacks one year after being drafted No. 8 overall, is a first-time Pro Bowl pick. So is 41-year-old kicker Matt Bryant in his 15th season. Center Alex Mack, the team’s top free-agent acquisition last March, and running back Devonta Freeman are Pro Bowl selections, too.
Little known-players have excelled. Receiver Taylor Gabriel, claimed off the waiver wire, undrafted rookie defensive back Brian Poole, second-year running back Terron Ward, and former practice squad tight ends Joshua Perkins and D.J. Tialavea have made big plays when called upon.
“This team is amazing, man,” Tialavea said. “I don’t think anyone knows how much we care for each other. You say brotherhood all the time, and it is a brotherhood, but it’s a lot deeper than that.”
Ryan has had his struggles, but the ninth-year veteran seems to get better each week. He’s the first NFL quarterback in a single season to throw TD passes to 13 receivers. He leads the league in passer rating and ranks third in completion percentage, yards passing and 34 touchdowns, a career high, against just seven interceptions.
“Obviously, those don’t happen without a lot of people making good plays,” Ryan said. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by a lot of really good players.”
NOTES: Quinn and Shanahan have talked about the offensive coordinator interviewing for a head coaching vacancy in the coming weeks. “It’s not something we talk regularly about, but certainly something that we’ve discussed,” Quinn said. … This season marks the ninth time in 51 years that the franchise has double-digit wins. … LG Andy Levitre (hip) left Sunday’s game and didn’t return, but Quinn expects that he, Campbell and TE Austin Hooper (knee) should practice this week.