ATLANTA -- Let's be clear, for the sake of Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora, about one thing: This is the National Football League.
We note that because, following his team's 24-21 comeback victory over New Orleans on Sunday evening, Mora felt compelled to remind the assembled media no fewer than a half-dozen times during his over-emotional press conference about the difficulty of winning in the NFL. So despite having typed the initials N-F-L maybe a couple million times on the laptop in 27 years of covering the league, and been hectored by coaches with lots more tenure, we still want to assure Mora his message sunk in.
Even if we remained silent while the other media drones beaten into submission by Mora and his Football 101 post-game rant dutifully intoned "NFL" when he asked the name of the league in which the Falcons are a notable partner. Or even if we failed to automatically blurt out "winning" when the testy Atlanta coach questioned the crowd about the most important element of every game.
Here's hoping, if Sunday evening was any indication, that the surging Falcons don't lose again any time soon. Let's please assure that, if they do, club officials have one of those portable defibrillators on hand, since Mora is apt to suffer either cardiac arrest or perhaps the kind of Chernobyl meltdown for which his head coach father was more infamous.
So, the Falcons, following their late-game, two-play rally over the Saints, are 9-2 now, atop the NFC South (see, Jim, we even know the names of the divisions), and a victory shy of claiming just the third division title in franchise history. If their head coach and any of the several players using that lame ol' Rodney Dangerfield lament after the latest win don't feel they are getting commensurate respect, they ought to wake up.
You know, the way the Falcons offense did on Sunday after virtually hibernating through nearly three quarters against a New Orleans defense that entered the game as the league's worst statistical unit.
For the second week in a row -- and this was the line of questioning, folks, that gnawed at Mora -- the Falcons scored on two of their first three offensive possessions and then went into a deep freeze. Leading 14-0, on a breathtaking 16-yard run by quarterback Michael Vick midway through the first quarter and a one-yard catch by fullback Stanley Pritchett early in the second stanza, the Atlanta offense proceeded to notch just a field goal on its ensuing eight possessions.
Over that span, the Falcons punted four times, missed a field goal, threw an interception, lost a fumble at the New Orleans six-yard line, and managed 10 first downs. Oh, yeah, the Falcons also fell behind their longtime rival, 21-17, when erratic Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks connected with wideout Joe Horn for a seven-yard touchdown with 11:56 remaining.
"We've got to be more consistent," allowed tailback T.J. Duckett, the little-used power runner who bulled for 58 yards on a dozen carries, and helped snap the offense from its malaise with a 25-yard burst to open one fourth-quarter series. "I think that we all have an attitude that we're going to go out and score every time. And at the beginning, that's what we're doing, right? But then, for whatever reason, we bog down some. And those stretches are the things we've got to avoid."
Mora insisted after the game that, because the Falcons own the best fourth-quarter points differential in the NFL (yep, there are those initials again, just for good measure), his club is adept at "putting away" its opponents. Unfortunately, he is confusing basic resolve and resiliency, commodities of which the Falcons have never been accused of lacking, for the kind of killer instinct that, say, the Indianapolis Colts offense possesses in huge doses.
No one has claimed, directly or indirectly, that the Atlanta offense coasts when it fashions an early and workable lead. Nor is anyone saying the Falcons lift their foot off the throttle a bit. But in each of its last three victories, and a few of the earlier wins, Atlanta turned a cushion into a game that had everyone on the edges of their chairs.
That's letting opponents back into games, folks, not putting them away. Putting teams away is expanding a 14-0 lead, as the Falcons quickly grabbed versus the Saints, into a 21-0 edge. Putting opponents away is scoring that one more touchdown that takes all the fight out of a team, like the Saints, that is seeking an excuse to surrender.
Painful as this may be for the Falcons and their coach to have to reconcile, their offense and its leader are both works in progress, plenty good enough with which to win now, apt to get far better when the unit and the quarterback upgrade their consistency levels. One would have thought, in the aftermath of the victory over the embattled Saints, pointing out such a truism was tantamount to treachery in the Georgia Dome.
Fortunately, for the Falcons, they've got the wondrous Vick. And just as fortunate for Atlanta, the Saints have Vick's second cousin, the enigmatic Brooks. Proving that bloodlines are more important in horse racing than football, Brooks typically mixed brilliance with brutality. He completed 19 of 34 passes for 189 yards, but was intercepted twice, and presided over an offense that too often settled for field goals.
Brooks hooked up enough times with Horn, who had nine catches for 101 yards, to keep things close. But he also went through periods of scattershot accuracy and, even with tailback Deuce McAllister rushing for 100 yards, the Saints offense rarely got into synch.
But while Brooks and Horn worked over Falcons rookie cornerback and first-round pick DeAngelo Hall, it was the tandem of Vick and tight end Alge Crumpler that authored the clutch plays at the game's most critical moments.
In this "season of the tight end," Crumpler doesn't necessarily have the biggest numbers, but he has made some of the biggest plays. Working on a second straight Pro Bowl berth, the four-year veteran has developed the kind of synergy with Vick that most quarterback and receiver batteries possess.
Don't believe it? Go back and check the Atlanta play-by-play books through 11 games. Not only is Crumpler the Falcons' leading receiver, with 43 catches for 609 yards and six touchdowns, but he is clearly Vick's "go to" guy when the going gets tough. In fact, on a team where the top wide receiver has only 27 catches and where Atlanta might well go to the playoffs without a wideout posting 40 catches, some have suggested Vick possesses tunnel vision when it comes to his tight end.
Certainly, there is an amazing comfort zone between the two, Crumpler conceded.
"I feel like, if he needs me, I'm there," said Crumpler, whose four catches for 103 yards on Sunday included the game-winning 20-yard snag with just 1:22 remaining. "Yeah, I would say we've got some kind of mental connection going."
Synergy, connection, call it what you will, Vick certainly had Crumpler dialed in on the brief but beautiful game-winning series.
After tailback Warrick Dunn fumbled away a scoring opportunity at the New Orleans 6-yard line, the Atlanta defense forced a three-and-out, and the Falcons took possession on the ensuing punt at the Saints' 47-yard line. On first down, Vick found Crumpler between two linebackers (Orlando Ruff had passed off the tight end to rookie Colby Bockwoldt, who could not hang with Crumpler) for 27 yards.
On the next play, Vick scrambled to buy time, then threw to Crumpler in the front left corner of the end zone, where nickel cornerback Jason Craft had fallen. The touchdown culminated the reawakening, and just in time, of the Falcons offense.
"I wasn't nervous because we've always been great at the beginning of the game and we have always been strong at the end," said Crumpler, who purposely avoided any mention of the mid-game offensive siesta. "You hook me up on a linebacker and I know that I am going to make a play. On the touchdown, they had a smaller guy on me, and when the ball is in the air, I just figure it's mine. But you've got to make those plays, because, well "
Yeah, yeah, we know why, Alge. We've been successfully schooled. Because this is the NFL.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.