ATLANTA -- Dan Quinn had spent the last few weeks divining the signals that this season would be different, that the Atlanta Falcons would not repeat the gut-wrenching swoon of 2015 that had branded his team with one of sports' worst pejoratives: mentally soft.
He insisted in public that this team was not like last year's, the one that started 6-1 and then collapsed to finish 8-8, but he was looking for something beyond what showed up in the statistics, the better speed on defense, or Vic Beasley's mounting sack total.
Those were promising signs for the future, but they hadn't averted the disasters of the prior two weeks, the losses to Seattleand San Diego in closely contested games that Atlanta had led late. There had been late interceptions in each of them, but those could be explained away by a quarterback pressing to make a play to save his team -- his sometimes undisciplined team that got mind-numbing penalties at the worst moments, that could not stop an opposing offense.
Still, the two losses were there and it was fair to wonder if whatever Quinn thought he detected with this year's team was a figment conjured of wishful thinking. He was wondering, too.
"I needed to see it," he said Sunday night, after he had finally seen it, in the Falcons' 33-32 victory over the Green Bay Packers. "I so wanted it to switch overnight. Going through difficult experiences was hard on us. I can't explain or quantify it -- it's not a stat of being different. It's just different."
It was certainly different Sunday, with Matt Ryan just barely outdueling Aaron Rodgers in the season's best quarterback matchup. Ryan, playing with a banged-up Julio Jones and without Jacob Tamme (who injured his shoulder early in the game), completed 28 of 35 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. Most critically, he did not throw an interception, even as Falcons fans covered their eyes on that game-winning drive, after Rodgers' fourth touchdown pass of the day (and a successful two-point conversion) had given Green Bay a six-point lead with less than four minutes remaining. A soft team would have stumbled here, maybe Ryan would have had another turnover. It would have been so easy to let this one slip away, too.
During the offseason, the Falcons worked with Navy Seals on a program that asks the participants how they can get one percent better. On the day after games, the Falcons have "tell the truth" Mondays in which they go through, with excruciating candor, things they did well and things they have to work on. Quinn begins the meetings by telling his players to talk to the person next to them and ask them what they can do to get better. This week, one of the problems was that the defense did not communicate well against San Diego, and so, Quinn said, rookie linebacker Deion Jones stated he would improve in this area. He did it all week, Quinn said, and he did it Sunday. There were bad plays on Sunday, certainly -- a defense that gives up 32 points at home is still one to worry about, and the penalties were there, too -- but even in the dark place that Quinn said his team was in after those two losses, the coach tries to reach for the other side.
"We are a tight group and I told them this is not the time to harden your heart," Quinn said of last week's message. "We're going to talk about the things we did well and the things we need to improve. I'm not coming from a place of 'You can't do this.' I'm coming from a place of 'If we don't get this right, we're not going to be as good as we should be.' "
It has been hard to figure what the Falcons are this season, after four straight wins over, among others, the Raiders and Broncos, followed by those losses to the Seahawks and Chargers. The Packers were equally hard to figure, although the questions about Rodgers and Jordy Nelson can probably be put to rest. But they were deeply wounded by injuries -- three of Rodgers' touchdown passes went to players who caught their first touchdown of the season. But this was a statement victory for the Falcons, nonetheless, and that final Ryan touchdown pass -- in which the QB looked left before quickly turning and finding Mohamed Sanu in the back of the end zone -- was a statement, too. Quinn said Atlanta's equipped to be in these scenarios and that the Falcons respect Ryan and follow him because of his toughness. It was his 33rd career game-winning drive. And most of all, it stopped the Falcons' bleeding.
On Friday afternoon, after the hard work of the week was over, Quinn walked through his locker room and saw about 15 players crowded around the side-by-side pingpong tables that have pride of place in Flowery Branch. The scars make a difference, Quinn said Sunday night, and he thought his team had learned from them -- not just the two recent ones, but the ones from last year, too. He saw what he needed to see Sunday night. But he saw a preview on that Friday afternoon.
"That's the culture I'd hoped we would create here in Atlanta, playing for one another," Quinn said. "Those experiences -- you're done with practice, you're done with meetings, it's not like 'OK, see you tomorrow.' It's 'OK, let's play pingpong -- I'm not leaving this group.' It's cool to see. It's not offense or defense. Matt Ryan was playing a rookie DB. Those small interactions that I look for and say 'That's it.' The game we play is emotional. If we're tight, it allows you to [get] through difficult times. There were times tonight, it was 'I'm not going to let this guy down.' "