ATLANTA -- Since the summer, there have been television commercials running in the Atlanta area with actor Samuel L. Jackson saying it’s time for the Falcons to "Rise Up.’’
In slightly different words and an entirely different voice, coach Mike Smith has been telling his team the same thing for much of the season.
Not sure if it was the message from Jackson or Smith or a combination of the two. But it doesn’t matter; the Atlanta Falcons finally rose up. Then they did it again.
After dominating for more than three quarters Thursday night, the Falcons squandered a big lead and had to rely on a last-minute touchdown drive to defeat the Baltimore Ravens 26-21 at the Georgia Dome.
“If you like football and you like an intense football game, that was one of them,’’ Smith said. “With 65 seconds to go in the ball game, no one on our sideline blinked.’’
That’s partly because there was no time to blink. Anything less than a win would have been disastrous for a team that had built an early lead. Instead, there were celebrations in the Georgia Dome and fans chanting “Super Bowl.’’ The Falcons are 7-2 and firmly in control of the NFC South.
But it wasn’t easy.
Roddy White, who earlier in the fourth quarter had dropped two balls that looked very catchable, caught a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan as the Falcons reclaimed a game they seemed to have well under control.
This wasn’t the wire-to-wire perfect game by the offense, defense and special teams that Smith has been begging the Falcons to play in recent weeks. But against a very good opponent and on a national stage, it was good enough.
In a battle with his 2008 draft mate Joe Flacco, Ryan rallied the Falcons down the field after the Ravens had taken the lead with just over a minute left. The Falcons may have caught a break when the Ravens were called for pass interference as Atlanta looked to be trying just to get into field goal range.
Ryan, who took his team to the playoffs as a rookie, might have taken the next step in his career by leading a big-time drive against a big-time defense. On White’s touchdown catch, the play initially was supposed to go to tight end Tony Gonzalez, but he ended up being well covered. White got tangled up with cornerback Josh Wilson, who fell down and left White wide open.
This time, there was no drop. He caught the ball and dashed into the end zone.
“It just says volumes about the maturation process of our quarterback,’’ Smith said. “He had the wherewithal when his primary guy was taken away, he went to the secondary guy. The ball is going to go where the defense tells it to go. That’s the way the system is designed. Fortunately, Matt and Roddy hooked up and we didn’t have to kick the field goal.’’
Ryan appeared well on his way to the next level as he led the Falcons to a 10-0 halftime lead. Using a no-huddle offense for most of the first half, Ryan helped the Falcons hold onto the ball for 21 minutes, 14 seconds.
“We’ve been in that no-huddle offense for three years,’’ Ryan said. “We felt confident and we felt that would help keep what Baltimore did vanilla. I think that’s the most we’ve ever used it. We were pretty effective doing it.’’
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s game plan was to throw the ball a lot and that didn’t change in the second half. The Falcons didn’t get conservative on offense as their defense, which had been so strong in the first half, allowed Flacco to throw for three second-half touchdowns.
Flacco hit Todd Heap with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 1:05 remaining to put Baltimore ahead, 21-20, for the first time all night. Over the next 45 seconds, Ryan engineered a seven-play drive that covered 80 yards and he hit White with the 33-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left.
“Roddy is disciplined in what he does and he ran his route,’’ said Ryan, who attempted a career-high 50 passes.
Ryan completed 32 of them for 316 yards, three touchdowns and finished with a 101.8 passer rating. He also hit White with a 4-yard touchdown pass with 11:34 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the Falcons ahead 20-7. But Flacco led two quick touchdown drives to give Baltimore the lead.
“We’ve been in these situations before,’’ Ryan said. “We were confident. We only needed to get three points, but we got six.’’
After the victory in a short week, the Falcons now get the weekend off. Smith said the Falcons won’t practice again until Monday. They don’t play again until Nov. 21 at St. Louis.
“The best part about our football team is we’re resilient in what we do,’’ Ryan said. “We never give up.’’
That became obvious as the Falcons extended their home winning streak with Ryan as the starter to 14 games. That, and a little improvement from the defense, could put the Falcons in very good shape come playoff time.
They’re not there yet, but they’re the first NFC team with seven wins and they need only two more to have three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. But the Falcons have their eyes on more than just a winning season.
“I know one thing about this group of guys,’’ Smith said. “They do not give up. They are resilient.’’
That resilience is paying off.
“I am proud of every man in that locker room because of what they did tonight,’’ Smith said. “They played a very good Baltimore team and they stayed there until the very end.’’
If the Falcons keep doing that, they might be playing at the end.