Falcons stand tall while veteran teams stumble - KTEN.com - No One Gets You Closer

Falcons stand tall while veteran teams stumble

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DATE CREATED: 12/22/08

On a day when Bucs, Vikings and Cardinals lose, give props to Atlanta
Tom Curran, NBCSports.com

About the only NFC team with playoff aspirations that can walk to the bathroom this morning, grip both sides of the sink, stare into the mirror and not be disgusted by what it sees? The Atlanta Falcons.

Yeah, that's right. On the second-to-last Sunday of the regular season when teams such as the Eagles, Buccaneers, Cardinals and Vikings - veteran teams - had every reason to show up bold and vibrant? Every one of them spent the day peeing on their shoes. Throw the Cowboys in there too, although they rushed things by falling apart on Saturday night.

Only the Falcons showed up. The team led by rookie head coach Mike Smith, a guy who probably wouldn't be recognized outside his own kitchen. The team quarterbacked brilliantly by rookie Matt Ryan, a Richie Cunningham lookalike whose voice squeaks. The team whose head coach in 2007, Bobby Petrino, up and quit in the middle of the year. The team whose former franchise hood ornament, Michael Vick, is in jail. The team with every right to shoe-pee given their inexperience? They're the ones that showed some composure.

We're keeping the Giants and Panthers out of the conversation because both their playoff fates were pretty secure. Their Sunday night game won by New York was to determine who would be the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They weren't desperately trying to get into the tournament as the Eagles, Bucs, Cards, Cowboys and Vikings.

The levels of ineptitude reached by these teams Sunday were staggering.

CARDINALS
They barely showed up in New England on Sunday, losing 47-7. Their touchdown came late in the fourth quarter. If you're wondering what the big deal is since Arizona (8-7) already clinched the NFC West, I'll tell you. Last week, they fell behind the Vikings 28-0 by halftime and lost 35-14. This week, they fell behind the Patriots 31-0 by the break. And on the first play of the second half - THE FIRST PLAY - Randy Moss went untouched on a 76-yard touchdown catch. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt stressed how vital it was for his team to show some kind of toughness on Sunday. They spent the snowy afternoon looking like they wanted their bankies and a little cocoa with puffy mini-marshmallows in it.

"We have to continue to grow up. I think that's the biggest thing because if we have adversity early in the game, it seems we can't recover from that. ... We can't just be that fragile of a team that we can't recover from bad starts. We need to find a way to stop them too, they went right down the field on us a couple of times and got up and then it makes it very difficult to stay in the game."

EAGLES
After the Cowboys loss Saturday night, the Eagles were in great position to make it to the playoffs on their own merit. Beat Washington and Dallas in their final two games - tough chore, but doable. And what did they do? Managed just a field goal in a 10-3 loss to Washington. And now they need to beat Dallas and get lots of outside help to qualify for the playoffs.

"We didn't get the job done," safety Brian Dawkins told the media. "This really hurts. This really hurts. I don't even care what needs to happen. We should have won this game right here." And now they're 8-6-1.

VIKINGS
A win over the visiting Falcons. That's all the Vikings needed. And they just kept dropping the football. Three first-half turnovers - a muffed punt, a fumble by Adrian Peterson and another fumble by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. On their first drive of the second half, they fumbled again on first down at the Atlanta 16. They fumbled on a third-and-9 on their next drive as well but shook things up that time by recovering.

Four turnovers at home in a clinching game? Horrific. And that's why the Vikings ended up losing 24-17. Asked why his team had so much trouble holding the football, Vikings coach Brad Childress said, "They're all different-flavored fumbles. If I had that answer, I'd bottle it and sell it. If you had told me Saturday it was a seven-fumble, lose-four game, I'd have probably called you a liar."

And then he'd have to apologize today. So at least Childress avoids that.

BUCCANEERS
Three weeks ago, Tampa Bay was 9-3 and entertaining little fantasies of playing in the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Now the Bucs are 9-6 and need to win next week against the Raiders and hope the Cowboys lose to the Eagles. Sunday, they took it in the face from San Diego, 41-24.

Two picks in the fourth thrown by Jeff Garcia helped make the score more lopsided than the game was, but the score doesn't matter as much as the Bucs disintegrating self-esteem does.

"It just didn't feel like we had enough spunk to outlast the Chargers today," said wideout Antonio Bryant said. Barring a spunk injection this week, Tampa's in serious trouble.

COWBOYS
An epic Saturday night disintegration in which the one-time Super Bowl aspirants went up in flames in the fourth quarter, allowing touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards on the first play of drives by the Ravens. A desperately bad performance by a team that's self-immolating once again. Now Dallas - like the Bucs, Vikes and Eagles - all need help to get in as a Wild Card.

It's worth wondering, of course, whether any of these teams is capable of being a threat in the postseason. It is possible. The 2007 Giants limped through the late stages of their season and then won the Super Bowl. The 2006 Colts spent December of that year getting run over on a weekly basis. They won the Super Bowl. The 2005 Steelers? Sixth seed in the AFC. They won the Super Bowl.

But the fragility of this crew seems to run pretty deep. And when they stare into the bathroom mirror this morning, some of them are to realize that, this year, they are just ... not ... good enough.

© 2008 NBC Sports.com

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