Wiedmer: Falcons manage to dodge the Saints ... for now

Wiedmer: Falcons manage to dodge the Saints ... for now

January 2nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA -- Yes, Matt Ryan's back-to-back first quarter touchdown passes to rookie receiver Julio Jones were the stuff of highlight reels. Atlanta's 35-0 lead over Tampa Bay not five minutes into the second quarter -- that's second quarter, not second half -- was also hugely impressive.

But the most important moment of the Falcons' New Year's Day 45-24 bludgeoning of the Bucs occurred not inside the Georgia Dome, but 916 miles away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

That's where the Green Bay Packers came from behind in the final minutes to knock off Detroit 45-41. That result means the Falcons will face the Giants in the opening round of the playoffs this weekend instead of returning to New Orleans for the second time in less than two weeks to meet the Saints.

Given that Atlanta lost 45-16 to New Orleans inside the Superdome on Dec. 26, the significance of avoiding a rematch -- at least for the time being -- can't be overstated.

Not that the Falcons admitted to openly cheering Green Bay's win.

"I don't care who we play," said linebacker Curtis Lofton, who returned an interception 26 yards for Atlanta's fifth touchdown of the day in the second quarter. "We can play with anybody."

Added Falcons head coach Mike Smith, refusing to comment on not playing the Saints, "I just know that there are 20 teams that would love to trade places with us right now."

But defensive back Dunta Robinson admitted to watching as much of the Lions-Packers game as possible before the Falcons took the field.

"We all watched it a little bit," he said. "But you finally have to go play your game. We had to stop worrying about it and control what we could control."

The Falcons pretty much controlled everything against Tampa Bay, which finished the season with 10 straight losses after a 4-2 start. Up 42-0 with 6:49 to play in the second quarter after an 81-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner, Atlanta coasted thereafter.

But the halftime stats were stunning, to say the least, what with the Falcons owning the prohibitive edge in yardage (319-98), turnovers (0-3) and rushing yards (186-16).

Turner had 172 yards rushing at the break. Jones had three catches for two scores. Ryan had a quarterback rating of 146.3, while breaking the team's single-season passing mark of 4,143 formerly held by Jeff George. Ryan threw for 4,177 yards during the regular season.

"The organization was nice enough to put it [his record] up on the Jumbotron, so I found out about it sitting on the bench," said Ryan with a grin. "[But] we've got a lot more important things ahead of us the next couple of weeks."

Not that the Falcons were the only NFL team in our coverage area hoping to play at least one more week.

Having first survived the Houston Texans 23-22 on Sunday afternoon, the Tennessee Titans next needed help from the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Oakland Raiders if they expected to reach their first postseason since 2008.

Specifically what the Titans needed was for the Jets to lose [they did], the Bengals to lose [they did] and Broncos and Raiders to both win. Instead, both Denver and Oakland lost, which left the Bengals and Titans tied with 9-7 records.

Because Cincy beat Tennessee 24-17 in Nashville on Nov. 6, the Bengals earned their third playoff bid in more than 20 years, despite going 0-7 against playoff-bound teams while the Titans finished 3-5 against postseason participants.

So what do we know this morning about the Falcons? We know they're pretty good hosting Florida teams, since they jolted Jacksonville 45-16 in mid-December before crushing Tampa Bay. We also know that since they faced neither the Giants nor Cowboys in the regular season, they won't have this season's game experience to go on when they take to the road.

And given that at least Robinson admitted to "worrying about it," it's fair to say that the Falcons are more than a little happy to avoid the Saints for a bit.

But that doesn't mean they're forgetting about them.

"We definitely want another shot at New Orleans," Robinson said. "We expect to see them at some point in time."

Instead, should they win this week, the Falcons will face a rested and ready Green Bay in round two. How good are the 15-1 Packers? Backup quarterback Matt Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns against the Lions. So is starting QB Aaron Rodgers really that good, or is it the system? (Just kidding, I think)

Regardless, if your options are facing the Saints inside the Superdome or the Packers on their frozen tundra, your worries are many. But as Smith said, at least you get to worry a week or two longer than 20 of your NFL brothers.