By D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution –
LANDOVER, Md. — Most of the current Falcons aren’t really into historical relevance.
But center Todd McClure, who’s been with the team since 1999, can appreciate how far the franchise has come.
With a less-than-stellar 24-17 victory over the Washington Redskins on a rainy Sunday, the Falcons reached the 5-0 mark to open the season for the first time since they began play in 1966.
“This,” McClure said, “is pretty special.” It was just a road win in October, but somewhere old Norb Hecker and other ghosts of Falcons’ hard-luck past were smiling.
“The best thing about it is that we are not playing our best football and we’re 5-0,” McClure said. “This team is much better than what we’ve played thus far. It’s easy to make corrections when you’re 5-0. We have a lot of room for improvement.”
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who leaned heavily on tight end Tony Gonzalez all day, sees a season with an industrious start but also with 11 games yet to play.
“It is great start for us. It really is,” Ryan said, who threw for 345 yards (34-of-52) but had an interception returned for a touchdown. “At this point you can’t really worry about what is going on in the history of our organization, but we have put ourselves right where we need to be five games into it.”
The Falcons previously had 4-0 starts in 2004 and 1986. In 2004, the team went on to play in the NFC title game. In 1986, they struggled and finished 7-8-1.
For the second straight Sunday, the Falcons needed a fourth-quarter rally to pull out the victory. The Redskins, who dropped to 2-3, may have lost their star rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to the league’s concussion protocol program, courtesy of a big thump in the third quarter from Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
The Falcons trailed 10-7 entering the fourth quarter but wide receiver Julio Jones put them ahead after hauling down an 18-yard touchdown pass.
But the defense quickly squandered the lead. On a third-and-12, rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins, Griffin’s back-up, tossed a 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss to put the Redskins back ahead, 17-14.
Smith said the coverage by the secondary “was absolutely blown.” The Falcons’ ensuing drive stalled, but kicker Matt Bryant, who switched to longer spikes for the wet field, made a 53-yard field goal to tie the game with 7:42 left.
After the defense held the Redskins to a three-and-out, Ryan drove the offense down for the winning score, a 13-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner culminating a six-play drive with 2:46 to play.
The defense closed out the game with two interceptions by Dunta Robinson and Thomas DeCoud.
Griffin was taken to the locker room after Weatherspoon knocked him out of the game with a fierce shot along the sideline during Washington’s second possession of the second half. Griffin’s head appear to snap back into defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux’s back.
“He wasn’t sure what quarter it was,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “At that time, when he wasn’t really sure what the score was or what quarter it was, we knew he had a mild concussion.”
Griffin retired to the Redskins’ locker room under his own power.
Washington slowed the Falcons by playing a lot of zone coverage, which provided deep help on receivers Roddy White and Jones.
That left the middle of the field to Gonzalez. He accumulated 13 catches for 123 yards and a key touchdown in the second quarter.
He finished one pass shy of his career high. He caught 14 passes against San Diego when he was with Kansas City on Jan. 2, 2005.
“When you have guys like Roddy and Julio outside, you saw anytime that we threw the ball deep, there were two or three guys around them,” Gonzalez said. “That means I’m getting man-to-man coverage underneath. I’ve said that for most of my career, if I can get man-to-man coverage, I should be able to get open most of the time.”
For most of this dreary day, he was open. The former Cal basketball player looked like he was posting up in the paint on a couple of his grabs.
“I’ve done this before,” Gonzalez said. “It’s part of the game as far as I’m concerned. I’m just glad I could help out.”
Washington became the latest team forced to make a defensive choice on the Falcons’ potent offense. Last week, Carolina elected to double-cover Jones and Gonzalez, allowing White to break loose for eight catches, 169 yards and two touchdowns.
The biggest issue is providing Ryan enough time to find the right person. After being sacked seven times by Carolina last week, Ryan was sacked only once Sunday.
“This is what we envisioned as an offense,” Gonzalez said. “You never know who is going to get it week in and week out, with those type of receivers outside, myself in the middle and Michael Turner in the backfield and Harry Douglas. There are a lot of weapons coming at you.
“It creates matchup problems for the defense.”
Gonzalez, who’s in his 16th year, has said he’s pretty sure he’ll retire after this season. But from this game, it’s clear that his skills have not diminished.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring for the last three years,” Gonzalez said. “That’s not the question. I know I can play another two years at a pretty good level. But the window is closing. I’m having a blast. I’m not thinking about it.”