ATLANTA -- Fourteen games into the season, the Atlanta Falcons finally played how they were supposed to play.
They looked like the trendy Super Bowl pick they were back in the preseason. They played with the “explosiveness’’ coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked about so much in the offseason. They were explosive on both sides of the ball -- and even on special teams -- and played the closest thing they have all season to a perfect game.
Granted, Jacksonville is not a good team, but we saw the first real signs that Atlanta can be a truly good one.
“That’s what we need,’’ said quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 19 of 26 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns. He also posted a 137.3 NFL passer rating, the second highest of his career. “But I still think we can be a lot better.’’
Maybe so. However, the Falcons were a lot closer to being a strong all-around team than they have been all season, and that's encouraging. At 9-5, the season had been marked by inconsistency and it never really seemed like the Falcons were meeting expectations.
But White, Edwards and others were missing at times earlier in the season. Recently, though, there had been signs that things were coming together.
What we saw Thursday night went beyond just a few flashes. What we saw was the team Smith and Dimitroff envisioned when they traded up in the draft to get receiver Julio Jones, and went out and signed Edwards to a big contract.
The downfield passing game, which had come on a bit in recent weeks, really clicked. White and Jones each made deep catches. White finished with 10 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and Jones had five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
“When you take shots downfield, you’ve got to just keep taking them,’’ Ryan said. “It’s like a shooter in basketball. Even if you’re not making the shots, you keep taking them because they’re going to come.’’
The offensive numbers could have been even more inflated, but Smith began pulling some of his starters late in the third quarter. Heck, the defensive statistics could have been even better, but they were pretty darn good.
Veteran defensive end John Abraham, the guy the Falcons wanted to help when they signed Edwards, had one of the best games of what has been a very impressive career. Abraham pretty much dominated the game.
He sacked rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert 3.5 times and forced two fumbles. Abraham’s first forced fumble came when he sacked Gabbert with 46 seconds left in the first half. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered, and the Falcons kicked a field goal to take a 27-0 halftime lead.
Abraham repeated the feat on Jacksonville’s third play of the third quarter -- only that Gabbert fumble was picked up by defensive tackle Corey Peters, who rumbled 13 yards for a touchdown.
“John Abraham had a monster night,’’ said Smith, who clinched his fourth consecutive winning season for a franchise that never had back-to-back winning seasons before his arrival.
Abraham had plenty of help. He shared a sack with Edwards, who also was credited with a quarterback hurry; reserve defensive end Kroy Biermann added a sack.
The Falcons were able to generate so much pressure on Gabbert with their front four that they seldom bothered to send blitzers. Having extra players in coverage was a big reason Gabbert had only 24 passing yards in the first half, and finished with 141 yards and an interception.
“[Gabbert] holds the ball a lot,’’ Abraham said.
Abraham took the ball out of Gabbert’s grasp, and the defense came awfully close to pitching a shutout. Jacksonville’s first touchdown came on a blocked punt in the third quarter, and its only offensive touchdown came with 59 seconds left, long after many of Atlanta’s defensive starters were out of the game.
“We played well on all cylinders,’’ Abraham said. “But I wouldn’t consider it a complete game. I’d consider it a good confidence-builder.’’
That confidence and the consistent play across the board could come in very handy. The Falcons don’t have to play again until the night after Christmas. That game is at New Orleans, and the Falcons have to win it to have any chance at becoming the first team in history to win NFC South titles in back-to-back seasons.
Smith set off a minor celebration after the game when he told the players they don’t have to practice again until Tuesday.
“Four or five days off couldn’t come at a better time,’’ Ryan said.
The break might also allow the Falcons to get injured cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back on the field. Having a fully healthy secondary could be crucial against the pass-happy Saints, who defeated the Falcons in overtime in their Nov. 13 meeting in Atlanta.
That loss hit the Falcons hard, coming as it did against a Saints team with which they have kindled one of the league’s top rivalries in recent years.
But the Falcons will get another shot at the Saints. This time it comes when the Falcons seem to be playing up to their potential, and they should be rested and healthy.
“That’s the advantage of a short week,’’ Smith said. “You get a long week after it. That will give us time to prepare for a team that’s playing as well as any team in the league.’’