FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Much like the first rule of “Fight Club,” NFL coaches never talk about the moment, or moments, ahead. They live in the world of Week 4 or Week 12, laser focused on this opponent, never looking forward in case something can be missed regarding the current foe facing them.
Some situations offer some latitude, however, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn came to just one of those scenarios during Wild-Card Weekend.
Moments after Atlanta advanced to Super Bowl LI on Sunday, some of the team’s veteran stars tried to determine at what point they knew the Falcons’ season turned into this trek toward the title game.
Dwight Freeney, speaking specifically about the defense, thought the moment of clarity happened during the final month of the season.
“I don’t know when, but I know in December at some point, things started to turn,” said the three-time All-Pro pass-rusher. “We took it up to another level somewhere in December, I don’t know if it was when we played the Rams or what have you, but something clicked and we started playing great defensively. We continued that, we continue that and hopefully we can continue that one more time.”
Receiver Mohamed Sanu recalled back to the game after Atlanta’s bye week. The Falcons came out if their Week-11 bye and faced the Arizona Cardinals. To Sanu, that might have been the point where he knew something special was happening.
Quinn wasn’t sold on the idea of something huge for this team until a little later. But he did buy into this Falcons team being destined for something.
“We did all this planning during the bye, during the playoff bye,” said Atlanta’s head coach to being asked Monday at what point he sat down and went over the logistics of practice schedules and travel plans for the Super Bowl. “So, I didn’t share that with the staff, but I did do the planning ahead.
“I thought that shift had happened where this team was heading in the right area, and we’re making the improvements necessary to play really well. So it was during that bye time that we put the plan together in terms of the structure of how it would work for the next few weeks.”
Quinn said he pulled from the experience he gained with Seattle, from the Seahawks’ trips to the big game.
“I’ve been through the process, and I knew some of the things that I really liked and some of the ones that we had as pitfalls. So I tried to use that experience. For me, I had a great model in Pete [Carroll] during the time that we did it with him.”
It’s impossible to look into Quinn’s mind to determine what exactly made him feel confident enough to shake the idea of not looking ahead to plan travel for the NFL’s biggest game. But two games prior to qualifying for the Super Bowl, Quinn planned the team’s activities for the title contest.
Outside of the feeling he had that told him the “shift had happened,” maybe pure numbers helped Quinn jump forward.
Looking at the entire 2016 season, the Falcons’ defense ranked 27th in points per game allowed at 25.4. But that’s not an accurate snapshot, at least not currently.
Since the bye week, Atlanta’s defense allowed 123 points in its final six games of the season. That’s an average of 20.5 points per game, and a marked improvement. If you aren’t sold on this figure since two outcomes – holding the Rams to 14 points and San Francisco to 13 – came against two cellar-dwellers, look at this:
In Atlanta’s two playoff games – versus Seattle and Green Bay, the league’s 18th and fourth-ranked offenses, respectively – the Falcons allowed an average of 20.5 points, a figure that if tallied for the entire season would rank this unit as a top-10 defense.
Quinn hasn’t turned Atlanta’s defense into a top-10 unit, but it’s surely closer to there than the lower-tier 27th that the 2016 season stat sheet portrays.
The Falcons improved offensively later in the year too. Sure the 33.8 points-per-game mark for the 2016 season was historically potent. But the numbers got bigger as the experienced piled on.
Atlanta scored 33 points or greater in five of its last six games (28 versus Kansas City being the outlier). That average… 36.6 points per game. Add in 36 points over Seattle and 44 versus Green Bay in the playoffs and it’s easy to see that this team sizzles offensively.
Almost everything clicked for the Falcons from their bye week to the end of the season. They even got help from other teams to help ensure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. That’s when Quinn sat down and planned for the Super Bowl.
Instead of being shocked that a head coach would step out of the moment and look ahead, instead commend the man for clearing a massive hurdle. Now he doesn’t have to waste any of the two weeks before Super Bowl LI planning logistics.
Those hours can be spent looking for ways to beat New England.