Shameful. Embarrassing. All too familiar. These are a few of the ways you can describe the Falcons' loss to the Cardinals on Sunday.
Those of you who urged me to stop being optimistic, you get your wish. These 2-5 Falcons are facing such long odds that I'm comfortable writing them off for this year, though I retain the hope that they'll stun me. On Sunday, the Falcons stalled out on offense, melted down on defense and just generally looked like a sub-.500 NFL team for the fifth time this season. At least in the past the games were close, but this one felt like a thunderous hammer blow to this team's coffin. The Cardinals defense is just so good, and Matt Ryan has now thrown nine interceptions against them in the last two games. Nine.
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Ultimately, you could make yourself believe the Falcons could still pull off a winning record if you looked at the many close losses, the strength of Matt Ryan's play and some of the weaker teams left on the schedule. The loss to the Cardinals leaves no doubt: This team is too injured, too weak and too prone to mistakes to pull out a playoff berth this season. We can argue about the level of terrible luck involved here, the unreal number of injuries and so forth, but at the end of the day the Falcons are sitting at 2-5 because they aren't playing good football. Full stop. You don't lose 27-6 to ANY team in the NFL by playing well.
Where do they go from here? I doubt they'll concede the season, so I can't say I expect major selling at the deadline or anything in that vein. It's imperative they get their young players going, figure out which free agents they want to keep and play to win as many damn football games as possible. If you think they should deal pieces off and consider cleaning house, I'm not going to argue with you, but I can't say it's likely. The likeliest course is the status quo for now.
What makes this game horribly frustrating is that every bit of progress the Falcons seemed to make a week ago turned out to be illusory. Even Matt Ryan was awful against the Cardinals for the second straight game, which is beyond disheartening. You can't expect the Falcons to play this awful going forward, but the future's awfully cloudy no matter which way you slice it.
There are legitimate, tough questions to be asked about this team's direction, though. Signing Steven Jackson, investing so much time and energy in Tony Gonzalez and then going young along the offensive line turned out to be an unfortunate mix. You can't anticipate injuries, but the Falcons needed to decide whether they wanted to go for a Super Bowl or reload for the future this year. Injuries and their record more or less force them to do the latter going forward, but attempting to finesse it to start the season was a mistake in (admittedly 20/20) hindsight.
I have to adjust my expectations going forward, and it's probably best if you do, too. It's better to be pleasantly surprised or have your expectations met than be bitterly disappointed. If you're like me, though, you'll root hard every weekend because nothing changes that. Ah, the life of a sports fan.
I'm rambling, of course. It's hard not to after watching a game like that. A breakdown of individual performances follows. Sort of.
- Drew Davis looked good out there, running crisp routes and coming down with a couple of tough catches. The Falcons will be leaning on the next man up the rest of the way, so one hopes Davis can be one of the guys stepping up. If he can be a useful piece for the future, all the better.
- Harry Douglas was sharp, again. The Falcons will lean on him as their top receiver as long as Roddy White is out, and mercifully he won't face this caliber of secondary that often.
- Peria Jerry has quietly put together a quality season. It's suddenly not unthinkable that the Falcons bring him back next season, and pairing Corey Peters with him would not be a half-bad set of DTs. I know, crazy.
- Asante Samuel got his 51st pick yesterday, and the Falcons were keying on some of Carson Palmer's errant passes.
- Matt Bosher is a tremendous punter. It's sad when that's a true highlight, but it doesn't change the fact that the Falcons managed to pick up a terrific special teams player.
- The Falcons have nice, clean white uniforms.
- You know what? No.
- Matt Ryan had no ground game, poor routes and so-so blocking in front of him, but he can't escape mention here. Ryan forced throws, reacted to phantom pressure and wasn't his usual self, leading to four interceptions. The Cardinals have a great defense and the Falcons are banged up, but Ryan needs to make better decisions with the football. I view this as his worst game of the season and likely his worst going forward, but it's still deeply unfortunate.
Ryan's still the building block on this team. Period.
- Steven Jackson couldn't get anything going behind the line. A lot of that does have to do with the blocking up front, but Jackson just didn't look as explosive and tough to drag down as he once did, and it's fair to wonder if he was 100%. Painful to watch, either way, and certainly the Jackson signing is shaping up to be a colossal mistake. Most of that is not his fault, but his final line was horrendous.
- We knew the pass protection was in for a stiff test, and it was a test they got a D on. Lamar Holmes got destroyed by John Abraham early on and Matt Ryan definitely had even less time than usual throughout the game. Add in suspect run blocking and it was a pretty lousy day for the offensive line, yet again. It's either let the young guys grow or blow it up at this point.
- A lack of a pass rush, poor tackling and even poor run defense? Why, it must be a Sunday for the Falcons defense! If the team only fixes one thing this offseason—and they ought to fix a lot more—it should be the front seven.
- The coverage seem to toggle on and off. At times, the Falcons had Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd blanketed. At other times, they let TEDDY WILLIAMS go for 51 yards against them. Growing pains for the young guys? Yes, and we should expect those. It doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
- The usual dumb calls and penalties. Desmond Trufant gets a facemask for grabbing hair? Sure. Still, though, the Falcons committed enough stupid penalties, especially in the secondary and along the offensive line. I feel like a broken record, but this team isn't playing with anywhere near the level of discipline it did in years past, and that's not entirely due to the young guys.
- The coaching staff is heading for a reckoning. Mike Smith, Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter are all well-respected coaches, but they're rightly going to be held accountable for some of the failings we've been seeing on a weekly basis. Ditto Thomas Dimitroff, but to a lesser extent. I still don't think firings are likely before the end of the season—or even after the season—but they're going to get plenty of grief from Arthur Blank, fans and pundits. You have to take it.
Game MVP: You're joking, right?
Game Theme Song: This.
One Thing To Take Away: The playoffs are a distant dream and we're going to talk about what this team can do to be better going forward, both in 2013 and beyond.
Next Week: The surging Carolina Panthers. You'll find them at Cat Scratch Reader.
Final Word: Goodnight.