ATLANTA — It's not exactly the grits-blitz of the 1980s, but this season's Falcons defense is proving to be plenty gritty in its own right. While the normally big-play offense sputtered for much of the day, Atlanta's opportunistic defense took center stage Sunday against the Raiders, helping extend the franchise's best start to a season to 6-0.
Regardless of how it happens, you don't argue with being undefeated this deep into a season in the NFL, and these imperfectly perfect Falcons continue to simply find a way to grind out wins.
Matt Ryan, who had been talked about as the league's MVP going into Sunday, never looked comfortable against the Raiders rush, throwing three first-half interceptions, and the Falcons also failed to convert three third-and-one situations, including once from inside the 1-yard line.
But a flock of Falcons defenders brought the Georgia Dome crowd to its feet, before Matt Bryant sent them home happy with his second final-second, game-winning field goal in three weeks.
The Raiders' first six possessions of the second half ended in either a turnover or a punt and Atlanta had seven tackles for loss, three by Jonathan Babineaux, while ageless defensive end Jonathan Abraham had three sacks and two quarterback pressures. Ray Edwards and Robert McClain each returned fumbles deep into Raiders territory to set up scoring opportunities, but it was the newest Falcons defender, cornerback Asante Samuel that came up biggest in the clutch when he stepped in front of a Carson Palmer pass and returned it 79-yards with 2:40 remaining for a TD to snap a 13-all tie.
On his way to the end zone, Samuel raised his left arm in celebration while he was still 30 yards away, before having to cut back inside of Palmer's tackle attempt and continuing on his way for the score.
"I was actually kind of worried he was going to get me," Samuel said afterward. "My blockers didn't really take him out like I thought, so I had to make one more move and then let the celebration resume."
But the final celebration couldn't commence even after Samuel's lightning fast momentum shift. The Raiders answered with an 80-yard scoring drive to tie the game again, but they also left just enough time — 40 seconds — for Matty Ice to reemerge and live up to his nickname after an otherwise frustrating afternoon.
Ryan completed all six attempts on the Falcons' final drive, moving the ball 43 yards to set up Bryant's 55-yard attempt with just six seconds remaining. The Raiders called timeout just before the snap, which actually allowed Bryant the chance for a practice kick — which actually sailed wide left -- before the real thing, which split the uprights.
"It really did help to get that first kick in right after they called timeout," Bryant said. "You get to swing away, follow through and see how everything feels. We made an adjustment on the snap after the first try went wide and it all paid off for us."
Countless Falcons teams of the past would not have had the resolve to fight back and find a way to grind out a win on a day when the offensive timing, which had been so impressive for much of the season, never quite clicked. The Falcons drove into Raiders' territory on each of their first four possessions of the game but the first three ended in two Ryan interceptions and Bryant's first missed field goal attempt of the season, before Ryan finally connected with Roddy White on a four-yard TD in the back of the end zone.
That was the only offensive TD for Atlanta, but much as they have each of the last three weeks, when it counted most the offense rallied late in the fourth quarter to pull out a win. And whether its a Hail Mary pass out of their own end zone to set up a Bryant game-winner against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, a late TD to edge the Redskins on the road last week, or the defense setting the tone until the offense finally put together a late drive, the difference between being a precarious 3-3 and going into the bye week unbeaten is that this group has already shown an ability to take advantage of every late-game opportunity, remaining calm in the one-possession situations that so often close-out NFL games.
"We've shown we can come from behind if we need to, or get big plays on either side of the ball when we need it," said future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had four catches for 42 yards, including two on the final drive. "The attitude we have — and have to have — is no matter whose turn it is to step up, we are confident anybody will do what it takes to get the win. And that's really all that matters."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...