A friendly reminder to Bucs fans gleefully taking the Falcons’ season-opening debacle against the Eagles at face value: That reassurance could transition to regret in pretty short order.
Granted, the Falcons flopped in coach Arthur Smith’s debut, falling 32-6 at home to a team projected for the NFC East doormat. Offensively, they mustered nothing after a couple of early field goals and let 36-year-old quarterback Matt Ryan get pummeled nearly as much Sunday as fellow Georgia resident Evander Holyfield did Saturday.
But the phrase “any given Sunday” is embedded in the NFL vernacular for a reason. Here are six points to consider before pegging the Bucs as prohibitive favorites when they host the Falcons on Sunday:
1. Debuts can deceive
The general parity that exists in the NFL means minimal carryover from one weekend to the next. You really see Jameis Winston throwing five touchdowns again Sunday at Carolina? Think Aaron Rodgers and Co. will lay another egg when the Packers host Detroit next Monday?
For recent historical context, consider the Bucs’ dreadful 2020 opener in New Orleans, followed by a 31-17 home triumph against Carolina the following week. The Browns were humiliated by the Ravens, 38-6 in their 2020 opener, only to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
All of which is to say, Week 1 in the NFL can be as misleading as it is mesmerizing.
2. Penalties are preventable
Time will determine whether some of the Falcons’ most glaring blemishes against the Eagles (such as pass protection, third-down futility) can be eliminated. But one very correctable flaw is penalties.
Atlanta was flagged 12 times for 99 yards, with two of the penalties (illegal formation, false start) occurring consecutively after having a first and goal at the 2. The Falcons, who trailed only 7-3 at the time, had to settle for a short field goal. Had they punched it in the end zone, the game’s complexion might have changed.
Then in the third quarter, after stuffing the Eagles on fourth and 2 from the Atlanta 20, the Falcons were whistled twice for offensive pass interference on the ensuing drive, which mustered nothing.
“That’s bad football,” Smith said. “It’s about scoring touchdowns in this league and eliminating self-inflicted wounds, and we didn’t do a good enough job.”
3. Matt Ryan had to heave it
Trailing by nine at halftime and 22-6 late in the third, the Falcons were forced to abandon what had been a promising run game, allowing the Eagles’ front four to pin their proverbial ears back and come after Ryan.
Atlanta had only four designed runs in the second half before its final possession (when it opted to run out the clock). Not coincidentally, Ryan (21 of 35, 164 yards, no interceptions) was sacked three times in the fourth quarter alone, and hit nine times in the game.
“I think it comes down to when you’re in known passing situations, and you’re playing against a really good defensive front four and they can tee off and makes it difficult to stay in a rhythm,” Ryan said.
“Coming into it, we had to be efficient first and second down. We had to stay in front of the chains and kind of hit in our spots and stay out of a lot of known passing situations.”
4. Speaking of the run game...
Before penalties and a surprisingly efficient Eagles offense (no turnovers) forced them to play from behind, the Falcons run game — a 2020 liability — appeared to be flourising.
The Falcons finished with 124 rushing yards, and totaled more in the first quarter (86) than they did in seven games last season. NFL journeyman Cordarrelle Patterson, who signed with the team in April, had 54 yards on seven carries.
5. Maybe the Eagles are better than we thought
Again, it’s foolish to make a four-month projection on a four-quarter frame of reference, but the Eagles couldn’t have provided a better debut for coach Nick Sirianni.
Making only his fifth NFL start, quarterback Jalen Hurts looked polished and poised, totaling 326 yards (including 62 on the ground) with three touchdown passes and no picks. He sparkled in a two-minute drill just before halftime, going 5 of 6 (not including a spike to stop the clock) for 46 yards, capped by a 9-yard scoring throw to tight end Dallas Goedert with two seconds remaining.
The Eagles netted 434 yards and went 6 of 13 on third down. Defensively, they held Atlanta to 260 yards and allowed only three conversions on third down in 14 tries.
“Offense played good; I thought they played really well,” Sirianni said. “Defense played lights out.”
6. Trap-game factor
Okay, we don’t really believe trap games exist in the NFL (Heck, they hardly exist in college anymore). But if they were a plausible intangible, Sunday’s game would have “trap” embossed on the game program.
The Bucs, coming off a mini-bye week (having opened on Thursday), face a humbled Falcons team just before hitting the road for two of their biggest games of 2021 (at Rams Sept, 26, at New England Oct. 3). While one simply can’t afford to overlook anyone at this level, human nature is human nature.
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