The road to the Super Bowl ran through Atlanta this season. Unfortunately, the Falcons won't be driving on to New Orleans.
It would be an understatement to say that I'm disappointed by the outcome of this game. The Falcons rang up 24 first half points and didn't manage to score the rest of the way, while the defense effectively imploded against a tough 49ers team. No one starts faster than these Atlanta Falcons, but it's also safe to argue that no contending team finishes quite as poorly. There's the lingering sense that they should have won that game and gone to the Super Bowl, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't hurt.
It's worth traveling back in time to recall what our expectations were at the beginning of the season. I was viewed in some quarters as too optimistic for predicting the Falcons at 11-5 and a wild card, so it's fair to say this season exceeded many expectations. Particularly given the fact that the Falcons hired two new coordinators, which generally means a less than amazing year. This was, any way you slice it, a great year. It just wasn't a Super Bowl year.
And there are many reasons why. The Falcons just never did a great job of adjusting defensively or offensively after halftime, and it bit them in the rear end more than a few times in 2012. The 49ers game was the one that cost them most, but the lack of execution and the complete collapse after the half will leave a sour taste in our mouth for months to come. If the Falcons do one thing this off-season—and believe me, they will do many—it will be ensuring that they can play four great quarters of football against even the best teams. They have to.
And for all this, keep in mind that one less turnover, a couple of completed passes or a couple more mistakes from the 49ers and the Falcons would have won. That's not to make excuses, but to point out how close this 28-24 game really was.
I remain proud of this Falcons team. I remain convinced that they will not just contend next year, but make another deep run. But none of us can deny that if they don't learn from their mistakes and improve, we're going to be looking at heartbreak again a year from now. None of us want that.
It's worth remembering the following, both positive and negative:
- The Falcons got a hell of a game from Matt Ryan. The interception and fumble hurt, and there's undoubtedly room for him to be more careful in his game. Still, 396 yards and three touchdowns is nothing to sneeze at, and if the Falcons had called a smarter game they may have won despite his missteps. I felt like Ryan took a huge step forward in 2012, and with a long-term contract looming, that's a very encouraging sign.
- If this was Michael Turner's last game in a Falcons jersey—and I think it was—he put in a decent effort. Eight carries, 30 yards and some clock-chewing carries along the way. Turner is clearly slowing down a bit, but I doubt he'll have trouble getting job as part of a platoon elsewhere. We'll have many more thoughts on the Burner in the weeks ahead.
- Julio Jones set a franchise record. Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White were huge. Harry Douglas reeled in a tough catch. The receiving corps is one of the best in football with Gonzo and still elite without him, and they'll continue to be a strength a year from now.
- The offensive line started to blossom. The Falcons will have some decisions to make on Todd McClure, Sam Baker and others, but the unit really grew as the season went on. I was encouraged, even if they don't run block well.
- The cornerbacks did a marvelous job of shutting down their guys today. Consider that nearly half of Kaepernick's measly 233 yards came from Vernon Davis, and you get the sense that the cornerbacks really came through. More on the tight end in a few.
- This whole team deserves credit for playing a tough team to the hilt and keeping Colin Kaepernick in the pocket. I wish they had won. They should have won. But it was still a damn good game.
- The ground game really never got going. That put Ryan into a position where he had to win the game with his arm, and the mistakes that followed are part of that. Jacquizz Rodgers hurt his case as a feature back in this one, though you have to consider his body of work. The Falcons must improve the run game in the off-season ahead.
- The pass rush was non-existent much of the game. That gave the 49ers time to find the open man, which too often was the tight end, and mount a comeback.
- The tight ends were barely covered. That reflects poorly on the safeties and linebackers.
- The defense in general needs to more aggressive. Some of that has to fall on Mike Nolan, who doesn't seem to keep the same fire in his teams in the second half. Thankfully, he has an off-season to pick up more personnel to fit his system and drill in the importance of sound coverage and good tackling.
- Not winning. Oh God, not winning.
Don't forget that we'll be talking Falcons all off-season. Join us for that, but in the meantime, let's talk about the game just a little longer.