DENVER -- The Atlanta Falcons knew the question was coming. They expected it before they ever finished celebrating their 23-16 win over the Denver Broncos, when the sweet taste of beating the defending Super Bowl champions hadn't even settled in. It was Atlanta's most impressive accomplishment in a season that already had begun quite impressively. The issue now is whether these Falcons are as good as they look, if they actually are built to last.
That has to be the topic of discussion today, with Atlanta (4-1) fresh off its fourth straight victory. There is going to be plenty of hype surrounding this team after Sunday's performance, but let's also not forget the memory of last season. The Falcons opened 2015 with five straight wins and inspired just as much optimism about their long-term potential. They wound up losing eight of their last 11 games while watching the Carolina Panthers run away with the NFC South.
This is why it's best to approach this year's Falcons with a little more caution, even though they believe they're better equipped to deal with early success.
"I think we are mentally tougher," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We are a more resilient group, for sure, and you learn from that. Obviously we started fast last year, and it didn't go our way in the second half of the season. But I think what you learn, especially for young guys, is that the difference between wins and losses are a handful of plays, and we have to be on the right end. I think we have done a really good job being opportunistic early in the season."
That is the biggest reason to feel good about Atlanta right now. These Falcons realize that they've been down this road before, and they don't want to falter again. The hidden blessing in last year's collapse was that it hardened this team in such a way that it won't start believing it's arrived too quickly. The more the Falcons talked after Sunday's game, the more they sounded like a group of guys who won't be savoring their success until they're playing deep into January.
Sunday's game was a perfect example of that focus. The Falcons were facing the best defense in football, and they marched right down the field on their first possession for a touchdown. They knew Denver would try to take away Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones -- who had gained 300 receiving yards a week earlier in a win over Carolina -- so they relied on other players to deliver big plays. A defense that had struggled in the first four games of the season also harassed rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch all day long, as that unit finished with six sacks.
It was easy to write off Atlanta's early success as resulting from a combination of good timing and a weak schedule. After all, two of the Falcons' wins came against New Orleans and the struggling Panthers (both of whom have one victory thus far), while they also lost at home to a two-win team, the Buccaneers. Facing the Broncos in Denver was an entirely different challenge. The Falcons ultimately controlled the game throughout, building a 23-6 lead in the fourth quarter that provided enough breathing room to hold off a late Broncos rally.
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had a brilliant game plan that focused on exploiting the Broncos linebackers: Running back Tevin Coleman had 132 receiving yards, while his backfield-mate, Devonta Freeman, ran for 88 yards on 23 carries. The versatility that the Falcons have displayed on offense should bode well for them in the coming weeks.
"We have different guys that can get involved in the pass game and different guys that can get involved in the run game," head coach Dan Quinn said. "We know the different matchups each week, and sometimes you get an opening [to exploit]."
The Falcons also have the type of chemistry Quinn has been trying to establish since he arrived in Atlanta last year. As the former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, he subscribes to the same feel-good principles that helped Pete Carroll build a juggernaut in the Pacific Northwest. Quinn values bonding as much as he does ballers, and this team is starting to feel more like a cohesive unit. As defensive end Adrian Clayborn said, "We're a brotherhood, and it shows out on the field. We're together no matter what."
Still, the most obvious determinant of how Atlanta will do moving forward is the play of that defense. There's little question that this team has enough firepower to put up points in bunches, as the Falconslead the NFL in scoring (35 points per game) and total yardage (457.4 per game). The defense, on the other hand, is allowing 28 points per contest and had just four sacks coming into Sunday's game. With three games coming up against top quarterbacks -- Atlanta will meet Seattle (with Russell Wilson), San Diego (Philip Rivers) and Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers) over the next three weeks -- the Falcons must find an effort similar to what they produced against the Broncos.
Granted, it's much easier to play defense when you're playing with a lead and facing a first-year quarterback making his first NFL start, as Lynch was in that contest. However, there were still plenty of positives for the Falcons to take away from that victory. The most obvious was the breakout effort delivered by second-year defensive end Vic Beasley. He had 3.5 sacks on Sunday -- after amassing four throughout all of 2015 -- and he now leads the team with 4.5 this year. The Falcons have to hope that game sets Beasley on a course to be the difference maker he was projected to be when Atlanta selected him in the first round of last year's draft.
The presence of 15th-year veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney -- who has three sacks of his own -- also should be a huge factor in whatever success this team enjoys moving forward. He joined the Arizona Cardinals last October and helped them reach the NFC Championship Game with nine sacks in 13 games (including the postseason). There's little doubt his experience and savvy can help Beasley and all the other young defensive players on that roster.
Freeney has been around long enough to know what Atlanta learned last year: That this is merely a nice start to a long season -- nothing more. Quinn echoed that same sentiment when he was asked how he would keep his players level-headed as they enter the discussion about potential playoff contenders.
"We reset," Quinn said. "That's what we do. We go through a process when we get ready to play ball, and we love that process that we go through. It starts tomorrow."
That's the predictable approach, and it's one that every coach in the NFL applies each week. The difference here is that it means more to the Falcons after everything they went through in 2015. They've been in this place before -- that much we know to be true. That disappointing experience also should have plenty to do with where they ultimately go from here.