The locker room of an NFL team who have just lost is never going to be a jubilant locker room, but after the Falcons implosion in the second half of the tenth International Series game, the atmosphere in the locker room was morose, the sense of frustration and sadness hanging thick in the air.
To be so dominant in the first half, and to fall apart so quickly in the second half, appeared to have left the Falcons withe a deep sense of dejection. Mike Smith within minutes of the final whistle, and stood at the podium a clearly broken man.
"Very disappointed with the way that we played in the second half," Smith opened up his post-game presser, you can't make the mistakes that we made in the second half against a good football team because when you do, they're going to come back and haunt you - and they did. Things went so easily in the first half, and we did not play nearly the type of football we did in the second half that we did in the first half."
What changed? Did the team become complacent?
"Absolutely not," said Smith, I don't believe there was any complacency whatsoever. We needed to come out fast in the second half of the ball game, and we did not on either side of the ball."
Smith may be resolute that there was no complacency at half time, but not all of the team were so adamant. Julio Jones said that at half time, "the atmosphere in the locker room was good... we were just going over everything that we could do in the second half to keep going out there and scoring points, but obviously we didn't do that - we came out, we were too flat, and we didn't finish." The team's other star wideout, Roddy White, agreed that "we thought we would have won this game. I thought we had it in the bag, and it's just disappointing to lose that way." Justin Blalock, in the locker room after the game, didn't blame complacency, but rather just a break down in the way the team played. "We started off fast, which is something we've been struggling to do lately, but for whatever reason, when we came out after half time... everything we did we just shot ourselves in the foot. No matter what it was, just taking turns figuring out ways to stall out, and putting our defense in terrible situations."
Complacency or not, one thing that many of the Falcons agreed was an error was taking their foot off the pedal. Blalock hinted that the team suffered from taking a too-passive approach. "When someone's down like that, in this league, you really have to snuff people out, put the game away... the way everything was working for us in the first half, I don't want to say that it makes it seem like it's going to be easy, but not matter the situation, when you have opportunities to put the game away, to at least get field goals, we have to do whatever's necessary to make that happen."
Mike Smith was asked about the decision to run out the ball when the Falcons intercepted the ball to get possession at their 18-yard line with 1:14 left on the clock in the first half and two timeouts remaining. "We were up 21, three scores. We didn't want to turn the football over. That was my decision." Matt Ryan concurred, saying that "with where we were at in the game, felt like we had a great first half. We were in the driver's seat, had a lot of momentum going into the second half. I'm OK with that call." Ryan may have been OK with the call, but Jones suggested that he felt differently. "That's coaches decision," Jones said, "we have in the past, with 50 seconds left on the clock, we'll go down there and get a field goal or possibly score - but we didn't. It was just conservative."
What hurt the team most, of course, was ultimately their inability to execute a four-minute offense. Matt Ryan diagnose the failure of their final possession:
"We did a great job of getting the first two downs.... we had a fresh set of downs, and first down, run the ball, and they call [their last] timeout, which in those situations, those four-minute situations, there's going to be runs that are zero-yard gains, those kind of things... on second down, obviously with a penalty, the clock doesn't continue to run. That makes it tough. And then on third down, we have a pass play called, and then in those situations we've got to execute, I've got to execute and make sure it's a completion so that the clock continues to run."
While it may be admirable of Ryan to take responsibility for that third-down incompletion - and in true quarterback fashion, he took the blame for the whole loss on his shoulders, saying that his late-third quarter interception "in my opinion, cost us the game" - that particular play in the dying minutes of the game was a drop by Julio Jones. Jones said that he had been "just trying to make a play, just trying to do too much in that situation. Should have caught the ball and just went down, even if I didn't gain a yard, we still could have run some time off the clock."
One of the other major differences between the first and second half was the amount of time Matt Ryan had in the pocket. Matt Ryan was pretty well protected throughout the first half, but in the second half he was downed twice, and hurried several times more. I asked Blalock about what the difference had been, and he replied that as "they're a very good front [with] a lot of excellent players, eventually they're going to make plays. Obviously it's our job to try and prevent that as much as we can... [but] we put ourselves in bad situations today." Ryan felt that "our guys up front did a good job, I really do. I think they played hard, I think they were physical, they did a great job," going on to say that the offensive line had enabled the to drive down the field in the second half drive that ended with Ryan's interception. When I asked Mike Smith, his answer for the difference in protection between the two halves was because "we did not execute our training that we spent all week training on. We got our quarterback hit, came right out and it started on the first play of the second half. We've got to try and make sure that we play with the same level of efficiency in both halves, and obviously we didn't do that today."
Whether it was due to a breakdown in protection, a lack of aggression in the playcalling, or complacency in the second half, the team did collapse in the most spectacularly frustrating of fashions - and the theme among each player was how much it "hurt". Smith, as he stood shellshocked at the podium in what is becoming the "graveyard of head coaches", said "when you lose any football game, it hurts. We felt, coming into this game, that if we took care of what we needed to today that it would put us in a very different situation than what we've been in over the last couple of weeks... it's a tough way to lose a football game. There's a bunch of guys who feel just as bad or worse than I do."
For a team that earlier this week was still adamant about their playoff chances, though, the loss seems to have brought about a crashing sense of reality. It's a sentiment that was perhaps best summed up by Roddy White:
"We're in a position right now where our division really isn't that strong... but this is going to be a hard one to take because we expected to win this game, and this was where we going to make our stand in the division and just continue to get better as a team. I think we were up emotionally for this game. We wanted it, and we just didn't find a way to get it done. It was frustrating today. It was really, really frustrating."