As mid-November hits, it’s not entirely unusual for football fans in Georgia to obsess about unbeaten teams.
The No. 5 Bulldogs have all eyes on Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame, knowing the right combination of losses coupled with a streak of Georgia wins could create a major championship opportunity.
It is unprecedented, however, for the undefeated talk this time of year to involve the local pro franchise. The Atlanta Falcons making it halfway through the season as the only unbeaten team in the NFL has to qualify as the most disorienting thing in sports.
The Falcons passed the franchise record start at 5-0, and the count has reached eight in a row heading into today’s NFC South hate-fest in New Orleans. Since Atlanta doesn’t face a team with a winning record at this point until Week 15 against the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants, everyone is wondering how long Matt Ryan and Co. can keep it up.
The doubts are overwhelming – thanks to three consecutive postseason flameouts the past four years.
“They still have to navigate through January with teams that have been there before,” former NFL cornerback Eric Davis said. “They still have to prove to themselves that they can do it, because they’ve been there before and haven’t done it.”
“Undefeated? Yes. Super Bowl threat? Yes. Best team in football? Still not convinced,” said veteran reporter Clifton Brown of the Sporting News.
Perhaps the most clever assessment came from an NFL.com columnist: “The 8-0 Falcons are like the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory. It’s hugely successful. You understand why that is. Still, you’d never rank it above other shows that, while less successful, just seem to have more to them.”
Ryan and the Falcons keep finding ways to win, but they don’t seem to possess the essential ingredients that define championship teams – particularly a shutdown defense like NFC counterparts Chicago (7-1) and San Francisco (6-2).
And the Falcons are still stigmatized by its postseason failures, especially the 2010 debacle when it failed to mount a remote challenge to the Green Bay Packers despite owning the NFC’s best record and homefield advantage.
“We have no respect yet,’’ safety William Moore said this week. “They’re not going to respect us until we get a ring.’’
“The buzz will come if we keep doing what we’ve been doing,’’ tight end Tony Gonzalez told reporters. “Also, I understand why it hasn’t been there. We haven’t had success in the playoffs. So everybody’s like, ‘Oh, same story. They’re good during the regular season. So let’s not make a big deal out of it, because they’re going to lose in the playoffs.’ ”
Considering Atlanta’s recent playoff history, Roddy White’s televised postgame comment last Sunday raised eyebrows.
“I wanna be 16-0,” he said before realizing what he just said. “Well, 19-0.”
Coach Mike Smith has transformed the Falcons into annual contenders with four consecutive winning seasons, but his playoff mark is 0-3.
“Right now, it’s just a start. That’s all it is,” Smith said. “We live in five-, six-, seven-day cycles as coaches and players. The next mission is the New Orleans Saints and that’s where our focus is going to be.”
Getting past the resurgent Saints (4-4) today might be Atlanta’s biggest challenge. It’s no secret that the franchises don’t much like each other, and New Orleans has relished in sticking it to its division rivals more often than not lately – posing on the Falcons’ logo for photos and running up scores to achieve records.
The latest indignity came in the off-season, when the Saints erected a statue outside the Superdome to commemorate its post-Katrina revival. They chose the punt block during the 2006 Saints victory over the Falcons as the defining image of the turnaround.
Atlanta, however, refused to let them use its helmet logo for immortalization in bronze.
“It was not something that we wanted to memorialize,” said Falcons president Rich McKay at the time.
Drew Brees and the Saints would enjoy nothing more than ruining Atlanta’s perfect record. To avoid it, the Falcons will need to do better than last Sunday night, when they scored only one rushing touchdown in a game when Ryan threw for a career best 342 yards, Michael Turner rushed for 102 yards and receivers Julio Jones and White each surpassed 100 yards.
Beat the Saints this week and the buzz will build. The NFL loves a good undefeated effort. The 2011 Green Bay Packers made it to 13-0 before losing to Kansas City in Week 15. The 2009 Indianapolis Colts got to 14-0 before sitting its stars in a Week 15 loss. The 2007 New England Patriots were 18-0 before being upset by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Even if few believe these Falcons are that caliber, media is already calling up Don Shula to get his thoughts on the vulnerability of his 1972 Dolphins’ singular accomplishment.
“They’re good,” the Hall of Fame coach told Fox Sports of the Falcons. “I like what they’re doing at quarterback and with their head coach. They’re playing good defense and they can score. But it’s a tough deal.”
Shula witnessed first-hand the Falcons’ gasping comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, and it gave him serious doubts he have to sweat out a perfect threat.
“They shouldn’t have won,” he said. “They should have gotten beat that game. Carolina had them and let them loose. Now, you’ve got to have games like that if you expect to run the table. We just have to wait and see who else is going to give them that kind of battle.”
For now, it gives Georgia football fans something different to talk about. But the only undefeated streak that really matters starts in January.