*AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a day-after look at the Falcons' thrilling 26-21 win over the Ravens on Thursday night. Atlanta improves to 7-2 on the season, overcoming some late-game mental errors and an offensive surge by Joe Flacco and the Ravens. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —The Atlanta Falcons have given their fans a half-season filled with memories, Pro Bowl play and enough moments to reduce their fingernails to nothing on their way to 7-2.
Though Thursday night's 26-21 victory over the Baltimore Ravens ended well, there were more than a few moments where it appeared all the good work they did in front of the national television audience was going to amount to nothing more than a loss.
And at one point it even looked like Roddy White was going to play a part, after so many plays this season to help the Falcons win.
In the fourth quarter the wide receiver dropped a pass that would have been a first down and kept the Falcons moving. In a season filled with highlight-reel moments, it was unusual to see the two-time Pro Bowler make a critical and costly gaffe. Even White is without reprieve.
"My O-line told me about it when I went back to the sidelines," White said. "They expect me to make that play, and I expect myself to make that play. It was kind of tough. Nine times out of ten I catch that ball, but they gave us a chance. They left a lot of time on the clock for us to go down there and score, and we did exactly that."
Even with the second chance, it still wasn't pretty.
Following wide receiver Michael Jenkins' 24-yard catch from quarterback Matt Ryan and the 15-yarder to White to pick up two first downs in the final drive, Ryan looked White's way on second down from Baltimore's 41. A short pass pay turned into another dropped pass and the Georgia Dome crowd wasn't sure whether to boo or bite their nails just a little bit more.
One play later White was stepping into the endzone the benefactor of a physical play with a cornerback, getting open and catching a 33-yard pass from Ryan to give the Falcons the lead, the win and the best record in the NFL. There was no animosity between the quarterback and his receiver, each know the other really well.
"He's mentally tough, he really is," Ryan said of White. "I've known that for a long time, playing with him for a couple of years. Any time you make a physical mistake, nobody likes to do that, but I tell our wide outs and tight ends all the time, 'Don't worry about dropping one or two because I'm going to throw a bunch of bad balls too.' You can't lose your confidence over that. He didn't."
Then he added a statement that may have defensive coordinators around the league beginning to grow concern over facing a Falcons offense that doesn't seem to ever go away.
"His confidence doesn't waver. Nor does mine or anybody's on this offense."
Behind Enemy Lines:Entering Thursday's game, the Ravens defense was seventh-best in the NFL on third downs, holding their opponents to a 40.9 percent conversion rate.
Much of that changed against the Falcons as The Baltimore Sun's Jamison Hensley points out.
Atlanta converted 12 of 20 third downs for an impressive 60 percent, which allowed the Falcons to continue to keep drives alive.
"That's the key right there," safety Ed Reed said. "Instead of us getting off the field, they converted when they had to. Against a good team, you can't do that."
From the FanCast:Through three quarters the game that was advertised as the showdown of bright young quarterbacks was all Ryan and little Joe Flacco.
In the Falcons-Ravens FanCast, Baltimore's inability to get on the field on offense much, led one fan to ask "Joe Who?"
Through three quarters, Atlanta held a 13-7 lead and a 28:13-16:47 advantage in time of possession. Virtually every stat leaned toward the Falcons, but the most glaring one was what Atlanta was holding Ryan's talented counterpart, Flacco, to.
The Ravens had amassed 152 yards on offense, but much of it came on the ground from talented running back Ray Rice. Flacco was limited to nine-of-18 passing for 61 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Fatigue may have factored into Atlanta allowing the Ravens to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After a short week, the Ravens showed theirs earlier in the game when Ryan and the offense kept them on the field for an eternity. Late in the game, after playing at a high level, their legs gave out a little.
"I felt it myself and I think the others did as well as the Ravens," Jamaal Anderson said of the wear and tear of the game. "
Linebacker Mike Peterson echoed those comments.
"We just found a way to win despite how we felt physically. Our legs were starting to tire at the end given that four-day turnaround in between games. Nonetheless, it was a good win."
They allowed Flacco to complete 13 of his 16 passes in the fourth quarter with 154 yards, connecting on two touchdowns, but as Peterson said, held on in the end and did just enough to come away with another win.
Lost in the fourth-quarter performance and the sheer dramatics of the game is how well the defense played for the majority of the contest.
The Atlanta defensive line rotation applied tremendous pressure to Flacco all night long and looked about as dominant as they have all season. Defensive end John Abraham had the team's two sacks, but the every member of the front four contributed.
Ends Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann chipped in a quarterback hit each and in total the front line had five tackles for loss. The defense limited the Ravens to 76 total yards in the first half.
The significance of eight?
It's the number of sacks Abraham has on the season, tying him for third in the NFL, a half sack behind Miami's Cameron Wake.
His two sacks on Thursday give him 44 in his career with the Falcons, placing him fifth on Atlanta's all-time sack list. Additionally his 30 sacks since 2008 rank third in the NFC during that time. * *
Pivotal Play:Perhaps the most over-looked thing on Thursday was the improvement on special teams, a sore point in recent weeks, specifically the coverage teams.
The insertion of former special teams standout Biermann appeared to have improved the coverage and the urgency was upgraded. The Falcons also got a forced fumble on special teams from a Brian Finneran tackle.
But given their recent struggles, there was a quiet sense of dread as Atlanta kicked the ball back to Baltimore with 20 seconds remaining in the game. Could the dangerous Ed Reed get a big return to put the Ravens in scoring position?
As Reed caught the ball in the end zone the decision to return it was a no-brainer. And then Eric Weems showed up.
The player that head coach Mike Smith calls one of his "core special teams players" made a tackle that limited the return and stopped the play dead in its tracks.
As Reed returned the ball, Weems appeared out of nowhere, blazing from up the field to take out Reed at the 14. It was a huge tackle that may have been lost in the post-touchdown jubilation.
It was so important to the win, many players in the locker room stopped by Weems' locker on their way out to shake the five-foot-nine receiver's hand. * *
That's A Wrap:The feeling in the locker room after Thursday's win was about as high as the Falcons have been all season. Even-tempered and level-headed, they don't let much get to them positively or negatively, but there was some relief and joy over a big win.
Or maybe they were excited to get a few extra hours to enjoy the win.
Smith, who normally only gives his team 24 hours to process a win or a loss, said he was giving the team an extra 12 hours to savor the taste of their seventh win. The Falcons will gather on Friday for a day that will be treated like a typical Monday, allowing them to review the game's film and close the book on Baltimore.
They also have the weekend off to rest up before moving on to preparation for the St. Louis Rams.
Led by a rookie quarterback meeting his first-overall pick expectations, the Rams are tied for first place in the NFC West at 4-4.