By Jason Keidel
Whenever two teams with avian handles play on the gridiron, we’re stuck with this “battle of the birds” cliche. But between the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons, one team is soaring while the other seems to be grounded.
And it’s not the teams we assumed entering the season.
The Falcons (7-4) are well above .500, in first place and getting better. Conversely, the Cardinals, who posted a sparkling 13-3 record last year, are 4-6-1, and way closer to last place.
The contrasts don’t stop there, not with the 38-19 drubbing the Falcons put on the Cardinals in Atlanta on Sunday.
Matt Ryan, a franchise QB in his prime, is posting MVP numbers. Carson Palmer, the No.1 draft pick in 2003, seems to inch closer to pasture with each interception. Ryan throws to an all-world receiver, Julio Jones, at his apex. Palmer also has a franchise WR, Larry Fitzgerald, though he’s well into his 30s and may be playing his final season.
And while the Cardinals have one high card in RB David Johnson, who’s short-circuiting scoreboards with epic yardage and touchdowns, the Falcons have gone more modern, with two running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who have combined for over 1,000 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
Playing the Falcons right now must feel like the football iteration of Whac-A-Mole. Stop Julio Jones, enter Mohamed Sanu. Stop Sanu, enter Taylor Gabriel. The little-known slot receiver will pick up a gaggle of fans and fantasy owners this week, as Gabriel turned two screen passes into his personal demo reels, making a very good defense — the Cards entered the game yielding the fewest yards — look like high school players.
With NFL rules so heavily bent toward the passing game, we find pyrotechnic offenses sprouting like weeds in some unlikely places. The Oakland Raiders, a perennial doormat this century, are 9-2, and have a rising QB flanked by fine wideouts and a stellar running back. The Dallas Cowboys, with just two playoff wins since Y2K, are run by a rookie QB and RB, yet lead the league in rushing and time of possession — and wins, of course.
If anything, yesterday’s game is an emblem of life in the NFL. If you need a better example of how fleeting success can be in pro football, look at the Cardinals, who were supposed to at least resemble last year’s iteration. Now they are choking on the thin air of playoff hopes. Likewise, the Falcons went 13-3 in 2012 and lost in the NFC title game by four points. Their horizon seemed as wide and bright as any club’s. Then they went 4-12 in 2013. Then 6-10. Then they fired head coach Mike Smith, whose future seemed as glowing as the team’s he coached.
Now the Falcons, under a defensive coach, Dan Quinn, seem to have resumed the trajectory that eluded them three years ago. And it shows that you need more than just a franchise quarterback. Look at the Steelers, widely considered a Super Bowl contender, struggling to keep pace in the woeful AFC North. Look at the Packers, who have the most talented QB in the world, gazing up at the Lions and Vikings in the NFC North.
Who thought the Carolina Panthers would tank? Or the Cardinals? If the playoffs began today, six of last year’s 12 playoff teams would be home.
Unless you have two monoliths, one at HC and QB (the Patriots, in other words) or an obscenely hot and gifted defense (as the Denver Broncos had last year), finding a metric to measure football teams, or at least their futures, seems as random as the yearly results.
Who saw the Falcons surging toward December with the hottest offense in the sport? Probably the Falcons, for reasons we can’t predict or measure.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.