When the Atlanta Falcons first took the field under Dan Quinn in 2015, they were out the gate like a shot, racing to a 5-0 start. The season was little over a month old, and the Falcons were already being floated as Super Bowl contenders.
And then, the collapse. On Thursday Night Football in Week 6, the Falcons got their first loss of the season, losing 31-21 to their NFC South rivals the Saints in New Orleans. Atlanta barely scraped a win their next game – edging the Tennessee Titans 10-7 – before going on to lose seven of their remaining nine games.
When the Atlanta Falcons took to the field for their second season under Dan Quinn, they were out the gate like a lead balloon, beaten at home 31-24 by their NFC South rivals the Bucs. The season was just a week old, and the Falcons were already being written off.
And then, the revival. The Falcons bounced back from that opening day loss to win their next four straight, and now, four months later, Atlanta are getting ready to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.
The shadows of Super Bowl XLIX
This may be only Dan Quinn’s second season as a head coach, but it’s his third trip to the Super Bowl in four years. While the architect of Seattle’s vaunted defense was Gus Bradley, it was under Dan Quinn’s watchful eye as defensive coordinator that the Seahawks defense destroyed Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 48, and which had done enough to win Super Bowl 49 if not for that infamous goal line play.
Of course, Seattle’s opponents in Super Bowl 49 were the New England Patriots, who the Falcons face Sunday. While Quinn himself was quick to wave off any comparisons – “our team wasn’t there, [Seattle’s] team was,” he told the media Monday night – some of his players feel that his experience two years ago will come into play.
“Watching Seattle play the Patriots is definitely a good guideline to go off,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said Tuesday, “[you can see] how you think they might try to play you, especially with [the Falcons] having fast, physical players like [Seattle] do, so it’s definitely a good guideline to go off schematically.”
Just two years removed from that Super Bowl win, the Patriots have plenty of Super Bowl winners on their team, players who have experienced the bright lights of the greatest show on Earth. Quinn says that he recognises that the Patriots may have the edge in championship game experience, “but at the same time, that’s something we have no control over. We want to control the things we can – our attitude, our toughness, our style, the way we want to go and attack… that’s what we’ll focus on.”
So, Dan Quinn is leaving the long shadows of Super Bowl 49 behind him, and focusing solely on the present. As already mentioned, that present is a far cry from where the team found themselves at the close of Week 1, a sour note to start a campaign to bounce back from that collapse in 2015. From the position of being NFC Champions, it’s perhaps easier to reflect on the disappointment that was last season, and how the team were able to learn from it.
A steep learning curve
“I feel like what changed [from last year] is not getting comfortable,” Grady Jarrett told RealSport. “We got to 5-0 last year, guys started getting a little comfortable, maybe not doing what we had done to get to that point. Then we just went on a mudslide down the season, we didn’t finish like we wanted to. So we took the lessons that we learnt last year to be a better team this year, we didn’t start as hot but we finished strong.”
That notion of ‘finish’ is one that is shared by safety Ricardo Allen: “we worked on finishing the whole offseason. That was the emphasis – finishing at any given time. You never know when that finish is going to be asked for, you never know if it’s in the first half or in the third quarter or when 0:00 [on the game clock] hits. So any given time, you’re fighting to finish. That’s what’s really carried this whole team.”
Offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder offered his own take on what was different this season from last: “the mindset of the team, the way we practice, the way we grind, just being able to be one as a unit and as a whole team. These guys on our team are all great guys, they all love to come to work, and just establishing that mindset of wanting to play for each other and work hard has been big for us.”
The one thing that always changes for every NFL team, of course, is the makeup of the locker room. This season, the team added two veterans that have had notable impacts – center Alex Mack, and defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Mack has been one of the best at his position in the whole league, but was doomed to a career of regular-season mediocrity as a member of league whipping-boy, the Cleveland Browns. Receiving interest from several teams, Mack explained on Tuesday why he chose to sing with Atlanta – crediting primarily someone who isn’t destined to be a Falcon for much longer.
“I was excited to come to Atlanta because I knew the system,” said Mack. “I was with Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland and I knew I could be successful in this system. I knew Matt Ryan was a really good quarterback, Julio Jones is an incredible receiver, and there’s all these pieces to the offense that I knew I could join and I could contribute. It’s been really fun to see that happen and really come to life this season.”
While he wasn’t a Falcon during last year’s hot start and subsequent fizzle, Mack could already see that the team had learned from their 2015 campaign: “To be really successful [in Shanahan’s scheme], there’s a small margin for error. In the second season of really learning the offense and the guys really learning how to run that outside zone running scheme, to start the offseason programme from Day 1 a full year ahead of where they were before and now knowing where you’re aiming to be, and the RBs doing a better job of catching the point, it was just really fun to start this season really fast. To get there from first day of training camp, first day of training camp, just have our offense rolling and everyone really committed to the run. You can see our wide receivers definitely blocking hard and letting those 4-5 yard runs have a chance to break to 20-30 yard runs.”
Freeney’s on-field contribution didn’t come quite as obviously as Mack’s at the start of the season, being mostly a rotational player. Instead, his main contributions came in the locker room. “[Freeney’s] done a great job of coming in, trying to implement his rush theory and what he’s had success with as a unit and with other rushers,” Jarrett claimed, “[he brings] knowledge and discipline. Discipline in the way he takes care of himself and handles his business in terms of watching tape… it’s just so much even off the field that you can learn from a guy like Dwight.”
Once Adrian Clayborn went down to injury, Freeney became a bigger part of the on-field game plan too. “When he first came here, we were going to try and feature him at the spot where he’s done so well,” Quinn said Tuesday. “Intentionally, we used him some on third down and in our two-minute package, and then over the last few weeks with the injury to Clayborn, we’re fortunate that he’s able to ramp up more reps and we’ll certainly count on him for that again this week.”
Preparing for the best
Between learning from 2015’s painful lessons, to adding some key veterans, Dan Quinn has lead the Falcons – on the back of Kyle Shanahan and the league’s #1 offense paired with a stingy defense – Atlanta find themselves here, about to take on the NFL’s most successful organisation of this century to try and win pro football’s grandest prize.
But how do you stop the Patriots? Cornerback Jalen Collins keeps things simple: “I’ve got to do my job so my brother can do his. If I’m taking care of business, if I’m covering my receiver, than my D-line brothers can go rush the quarterback.”
Because of their scheme, Collins knows that he’ll often be matched against Chris Hogan, the undrafted receiver who bounced around the league until he landed in Buffalo, before joining the Patriots this year. Hogan had a monster game in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, notching 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but that didn’t throw Collins. “He put up all those yards on another defense,” Collins told us, “not to take anything away from him, but he’s gonna line up against us, and we’re not going to give him anything easy.”
Allen is perhaps more cautious when it comes to downplaying the Patriots’ receivers. “They’re all really good, and you can tell they’re all really smart, because they can all play any position on the field,” Allen told us. “There’s no receiver that goes to one spot and just sticks there. When they get the ball in their hands, they’re not receivers who just catch – they’ll go run around, they look for contact, they look for extra yards. They’re looking to turn the smallest play into a touchdown.”
Jarrett also seemed fully aware of the task ahead of him: “They have a lot of guys that are able to do dangerous things with the ball, especially their talented running backs. They’ve got a lot of offensive power. At the same time, we’ve just got to stick to our plan and do what we do.”
That’s not to ignore the other side of the ball either. Schraeder described the Patriots’ defense as “probably one of the better ones that we’ve faced all year. They’ll be a huge challenge, they’re very talented and do a lot of different stuff than what we’ve seen this year. At the same time, I think we’re prepared. We’ve had some tough road test, we’ve had some tough games, faced some tough defenses. I think we’re ready to go.”
Ultimately, though, the Patriots go through one man: Tom Brady. Arguably no-one on the Falcons knows Brady better as an opponent than Dwight Freeney, with the clashes throughout the 00s between the Patriots and the Colts being some of the most anticipated every season. Freeney shared exactly what he feels makes Tom Brady so great:
“Brady’s an amazing player, but he does what the system demands. Brady is one of those guys where if the checkdown is there, he’s gonna throw it, and I think that’s what makes him so good. He doesn’t do much of making stuff up, it would break the system of what they do. He’s cool, he’s calm and collected in the pocket, and he can manage that offense in a way that no other has, and make the least amount of mistakes. That’s why the Patriots are so good – they make so few mistakes.”
That’s something Jarrett has seen as well. “You’ve got to take advantage of whatever opportunities come your way because they haven’t had a lot of turnovers. They do a good job of taking care of the ball, and do a good job of going after it [on defense]. It’s like two philosophies meeting each other – it’s all about the ball and they’re a team that clearly understands that. But we understand that as well.”
Which of the two teams understands – and executes – those two philosophies will go a long way to determining if the Falcons will lift the Lombardi Trophy for the first time come Sunday, or whether those long shadows of Super Bowl 49 will hang over Dan Quinn once more.
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