The best part of the Atlanta Falcons’ victory in the Meadowlands was Julio Jones, duh, but he’s pretty good all the time. The most encouraging part was that the defense, for the second week in a row, made the stop to seal the victory. The one against Philadelphia bore a bit of an asterisk — Ricardo Allen’s interception came off a pass the Eagles’ Jordan Matthews muffed — but what happened at the end in Jersey was coverage and, yes, pressure.
Eli Manning, who has been a big-game quarterback in his career, had 1:14 and one timeout with which to work. Plenty of time. He didn’t complete a pass. Yes, Robert Alford was flagged for a 30-yard interference penalty — seemed iffy to me, by the way — but the Falcons brought just enough heat to discombobulate the younger Manning.
He threw too high for Odell Beckham Jr., who can really jump, and for tight end Larry Donnell, who’s 6-foot-6. He threw too low for Preston Parker, who had been dropping everything anyway and who has since been released. Linebacker O’Brien Schofield forced Manning to throw the ball away on third-and-10 by slamming into his legs. In a league where big-time quarterbacks take their teams the length of the field to win as a matter of routine, the Falcons didn’t let that happen.
If we recall, the first sign of the end for Mike Smith came in Week 3 of the 2013 season, when Ryan Tannehill led the Dolphins 75 yards to game-winning touchdown. Then, two weeks later, Geno Smith drove the Jets to the winning field goal as time expired. After the Jets’ loss, the Falcons were 1-4 and finished for the season and nothing for Smith would ever be good again.
Both the Eagles and the Giants had a chance to win at the end; neither came close. Some of this has to do with Dan Quinn’s defense schemes, surely. Some has to do with the presence of Vic Beasley Jr., who had a fourth-quarter sack that forced a fumble that became a weird Giants first down. Whatever the cause, the visitors pitched a fourth-quarter shutout. The Giants a chance to ice the game inside the final five minutes and went three-and-out. (That was the series when Manning took a delay-of-game penalty before third-and-seven and threw short on third-and-12.)
For nearly three quarters Sunday, the Falcons’ new-look pass rush looked much like the pass rush of old, meaning non-existent. It was very nearly 27-10, over and out, until Kroy Biermann ran down Manning from behind and forced the game-changing fumble, but that wasn’t so much pressure as it was Manning holding the ball too long. Even so, the game changed then. The Falcons would score two touchdowns. The Giants would manage four more first downs, one by penalty, another on a fumble.
Bill Walsh used to say that the key to NFL football was a pass rush late in games. It took a while for the Falcons’ rush to show itself, and when it did it wasn’t like some great wave. But it was enough to rattle a veteran quarterback and win a coin-flip game on the road. If you’re seeking reasons to believe in this team, that fourth-quarter stirring was a most welcome sight.