It's amazing how the momentum of a two-game winning streak can be met with the sobering reality that Atlanta is a work-in-progress after a loss – just one loss - to Carolina.
The six-point win by the Panthers Sunday makes it seem more competitive than it was. The overall performance by the Falcons and the aftermath of what's next suggests concern.
Inconsistency and, worse yet, getting strong-armed by the Panthers is something that shouldn't sit well with anyone at Falcons headquarters -- especially after four straight games in which most of those shortcomings didn't rear their ugly heads, despite the outcomes.
The red flag is this: The Falcons have gotten into the cliched pattern of winning games they "should" win, beating the Giants, Jets and Dolphins. Which means, they've been the team others (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Washington, Carolina) should beat.
Unless Atlanta breaks that trend, next comes a stretch of games, starting Sunday with the rival Saints, that could send this season in the wrong direction.
We'll get to the rest of that hornets' nest in a second, but this Saints game is a test that might really reveal the Falcons' mental makeup more than any so far. That's because they're facing a team whose mental makeup has already been tested this season, especially last week against the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
Quarterback Jameis Winston sustained a season-ending torn ACL injury and was replaced by journeyman, Trevor Siemian. Siemian managed New Orleans to an impressive 36-27 victory over Tampa Bay. It wasn't Siemian so much for the win, as it was the defense that elevated once again to bring New Orleans to 5-2 – a half game behind the Bucs in the NFC South.
Mind you, this is a Saints team that hasn't had its best wide receiver, Michael Thomas, all season long, and has been and will be without key players moving forward. No excuses. Just a will and poise to find a way most of the time.
Despite losing Winston, the Saints are getting healthier on offense and they just got back two key defensive linemen in Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata and linebacker Kwon Alexander to strengthen a unit that has kept New Orleans in the playoff hunt most of the season.
It either will be Siemian or Taysom Hill, who has been out because of concussion at quarterback when Atlanta travels to New Orleans. The Falcons will have the edge at quarterback for sure.
But will the Falcons' defense make either Saints quarterback uncomfortable enough to falter? Even if it does, will Atlanta capitalize?
More importantly, can Atlanta’s run defense, which just gave up 203 rushing yards to a Carolina team that no one would consider bullies, slow down Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram? Running the ball successfully is the easiest way to take pressure off Siemian or Hill, right?
These were the same questions last season when the Falcons had to face Hill twice last season in a month, failing both times. Sure, last season was last season, but the point is, New Orleans was vulnerable at quarterback and still found a way to win.
It's a stature Atlanta must get to before it can be taken seriously – finding a way to win when things aren't perfect.
Yes, developing players while competing is part of this season's process. Opting not to make any trades before Tuesday's deadline showed this is the group that's going to have to ride this through.
What happens next is equal parts character and production.
Things won't be fun if the Ls start to mount. After playing the Saints, the next slew of games for the Falcons: at Cowboys, New England, at Jaguars, Tampa Bay, at Panthers, at San Francisco, Detroit, at Buffalo, New Orleans. It's about to get really real.
What would be hard? Showing up each of those weeks – starting with the Saints -- and doing the little things consistently: setting an edge, filling the proper gap, hitting the right hole after a handoff, passing the ball to the receiver's sweet spot, making a timely stop.
For a team like Atlanta, those things are hard because it hasn't figured those parts out yet, week to week.
That doesn't mean the Falcons can't. It also doesn't mean it results in beating disciplined and more talented teams like the Saints, Patriots, Buccaneers 49ers and Bills.
However, if it means not being a cliché – being one of those teams that opponents are supposed to beat – then the hard part should be worth it.
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
Break down the hottest topics surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and how they can impact the team's success with Atlanta Falcons Insiders Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney and Kris Rhim. Like and subscribe to join us for the lively debate on Falcons Final Whistle.
Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.