- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

In their first 40 years, the Atlanta Falcons never managed consecutive winning seasons.

But after going 11-5 in 2004 and finishing 8-8 last year, the never-accomplished feat of three straight non-losing seasons seemed a sure thing a month ago. After all, Atlanta was 5-2 with its next two games against perennial losers Detroit and Cleveland.

However, these are the Falcons. When the going gets tough, the Falcons go south.

After a 6-4 start in 2001, Atlanta lost five of its last six games. The next year with the spectacular Michael Vick having taken over at quarterback, the Falcons slunk into the playoffs after losing three of their final four. Vick was hurt for most of 2003, but he was back for the 2-3 playoff precursor in 2004 and the 2-6 collapse that cost Atlanta a winning record last year.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Falcons not only lost back-to-back to the Lions and Browns (3-17 against the rest of the league) but followed with one-sided defeats to heavyweights Baltimore and New Orleans. The latter 31-13 spanking was preceded by owner Arthur Blank threatening major changes if Atlanta didn’t produce a winning season and was punctuated by franchise player Vick’s now-infamous dirty bird salute to the hecklers in the Georgia Dome crowd.

“There have been some points where we’ve just played some Bad News Bears football,” running back Warrick Dunn said.

One of those times was last Sunday when the defense surrendered a 76-yard bomb on the game’s third play, the first of three completions of at least 46 yards by the Saints. Atlanta’s Roddy White dropped a sure touchdown while fellow receiver Ashley Lelie fell down twice on deep balls.

Blank put the players and coaches on notice following the critical division loss.

“If it continues to go downhill, everybody’s going to be in trouble,” Dunn said. “Coach [Jim] Mora will feel the heat. Everybody on this team will feel the heat. No one is safe. Mike [Vick] is not safe. There’s a lot of pressure on us.”

Despite a 25-20 record that makes him the most successful of the 12 coaches in Atlanta history, Mora is definitely feeling that pressure.

“This is the first week in my three years here that I’ve been under .500,” Mora said. “It’s tough when you lose. You pour your heart and soul into this. It’s not like you just show up on Sunday and play a game. It consumes your life for six or seven months. It takes away from your family. It puts you smack dab in the public eye. You’re open for criticism and scrutiny. And when you don’t have success, it’s difficult.”

Injuries have hurt the defense which added passrusher John Abraham and safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker in the offseason, but played without Abraham and middle linebacker Ed Hartwell for eight games apiece. Atlanta’s defense is ranked 22nd, just as it was last year. The Falcons are ninth against the run and 11th in sacks but 30th against the pass.

“We have spurts of outstanding play, then a breakdown, spurts of outstanding play, then a breakdown and that’s a recipe for not very good,” Mora said.

The offense added Lelie and left tackle Wayne Gandy but is easily the NFL’s most unbalanced — first in rushing and 31st in passing — as the rocket-armed, blazing-fast Vick remains a bad fit for the short pass-based West Coast scheme.

“We’re a good running football team,” Dunn said. “We just haven’t run the ball well lately [125 yards per game, down from 211 during the 5-2 start]. Teams are definitely stacking up against the run and making us throw the football.”

The Falcons’ 3-4 NFC record is the worst of the conference’s five teams that are 5-6 overall, putting them 11th in the race for six playoff spots with three road games and home dates with contenders Dallas and Carolina remaining. So Mora didn’t mince words when asked if tomorrow’s game against the 4-7 Washington Redskins is a must-win.

“Yeah, we have to win it,” he said.

Considering that it’s December and these are the Falcons, that’s much easier said than done.

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