ATLANTA — Of this I am now convinced: The Falcons, 26-21 winners over Baltimore here Thursday night, have a real shot at playing in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. With seven wins already in the bag in a wide-open NFC, a strong home-field advantage and a potentially galvanizing, season-altering rally vs. the Ravens atop their résumé, what is not to like about the Falcons?
But here's my question: What did we learn about the Ravens Thursday? This was a team some thought might be the best in football entering the evening. And let there be no doubt: The Ravens can be that good, especially this season, with no dominant team emerging. Their best game ... well, I don't know if we've seen their best, which makes them so intriguing.
We learned Thursday the Ravens are capable of a sustained, championship-style comeback effort. In the first half, the Ravens looked overmatched, flat, out-of-sorts. The Falcons were winning the battle in all three phases. Then, the Ravens, in a quarter-and-a-half burst, caught up to and passed Atlanta, a late kick that seemed to have them home free, holding a 21-20 lead with 1:05 left and Atlanta stuck on its own 20-yard line, at least 40 yards to travel for a legitimate field-goal attempt.
"Eighty yards? I mean, you ask for that (scenario)," Ravens SLB Jarret Johnson said afterward, taking the view of the defense.
Here was the Ravens' chance to close out the game. And with Falcons incompletions on the first two plays of the series, the Ravens seemed poised to do just that. But then Atlanta QB Matt Ryan, as he did all night, found an opening in the Ravens' coverage, connecting with WR Michael Jenkins for 24 yards along the left sideline for the penultimate of 12 successful third-down conversions in 20 attempts on the evening. Four plays later, Ryan found White, whom Baltimore had no answer for all evening, for the game-winning 33-yard touchdown.
"We let them escape," Ravens ROLB Terrell Suggs said afterward, echoing a common sentiment in the Baltimore locker room.
If the Falcons escaped, however, it was because they put themselves in position to nail the Ravens at the wire. Time and again, Atlanta moved the chains, especially in the first half, when they converted 8-of-12 third downs and held the ball for 21:14 to the Ravens' 8:46. On the other hand, the Ravens converted just 1-of-4 third downs in the first 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Ravens QB Joe Flacco completed just 5-of-8 passes for 31 yards.
Finally, trailing 13-0 early in the third quarter and in real danger of being blown out, the Ravens bounced back, with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron pushing the right buttons on Baltimore's first scoring drive. The first two plays of the drive were runs off the left side at DE John Abraham, who had an outstanding game rushing the passer, and netted eight yards apiece. Later in the drive, Cameron dialed up a reverse to WR Donté Stallworth, who sprinted 19 yards as the Ravens took advantage of the Falcons' aggressiveness. Flacco also stood out on this drive, scrambling for a first down after the Falcons collapsed the pocket and the coverage vacated the area, and he ended the drive with a five-yard strike to WR Anquan Boldin in the right corner of the endzone for the Ravens' first touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, the offense really hit its stride, with Flacco showing special poise and awareness, several times evading the rush and finding open receivers. First, he found WR Derrick Mason in the right corner of the endzone for a six-yard TD with 5:42 left. Then, after an Atlanta punt, he led the Ravens on an eight-play, 72-yard drive capped by a nine-yard TD pass to TE Todd Heap in the middle of the endzone.
But Ryan, in a breakout performance, and White, one of the NFC's better receivers, would have the final word.
Which brings us back to these Ravens. In bursts, they are brilliant. At other times, they look like a team a slight cut below the AFC's best. The inability to get off the field on third downs Thursday was especially troubling; such woes are the road to indigestion, lamenting and dashed Super Bowl dreams. It wasn't just once that Ryan delivered the ball on time and to an open receiver.
But this was just a Thursday night two weeks before Thanksgiving, in a tough setting against an NFC foe which usually brings it at home. RB Ray Rice pointed out that the Ravens had but one drive in the second quarter — "and we were still in the game."
"It's just a little bump for us," Rice said, noting that the short week of preparation had no effect on the Ravens. "... Everybody went out there and fought. We'll try to see those guys again later down the road."
Try they will, and perhaps they may. For almost two quarters, the Ravens looked like a Super Bowl team. The problem was, the Falcons had the first half and the final drive under control, thank you very much. Slow and steady — and spectacular when absolutely necessary — won the game for Atlanta.
"We had to start coming out and playing a little bit faster," Mason said. "Atlanta is a very good team, and we can't get caught in situations like this anymore."
If the Ravens learned anything Thursday, it needs to be just that.