The first home game in over a month against a banged-up Browns team was never going to be a gimme for the Atlanta Falcons, but there was certainly reason (citation needed) to believe this was a winnable contest. Instead, the Falcons imploded once more in excruciating fashion, and whatever hopeful scenarios we may have worked out to cope with this season have evaporated with the loss.
These Falcons were undone by middling performances on both sides of the ball. This time, it was Matt Ryan leading the way alongside the coaching staff and defense. Ryan takes an inordinate amount of crap for the fate of the team, which makes sense for a starting quarterback but generally isn't supported by his stats or his performance. This time, however, his errant throws and mistakes wound up costing the Falcons to the tune of two turnovers and an excruciating and costly sack after the half. Given the margin, it's more than fair to argue that Ryan was the primary reason they lost this game.
Or it would be, if not for Mike Smith. Smitty has been a polarizing coach the last couple of years, but he probably sealed his own fate in this game, calling a timeout on the Falcons' final drive of the fourth quarter ahead of Matt Bryant's 53 yard field goal attempt. Ryan proceeded to try a deep throw which he missed--a poor decision, to be sure--and Bryant hit the field goal, leaving the Browns with enough time to drive down the field and put Billy Cundiff in range. Cundiff hit the game-winner as time expired, and it was painfully clear that there not only would be repercussions for this loss, but that they were deserved. Those repercussions still are unlikely to come before the end of the season.
The defense was far from effective but had mostly contained the damage until the third quarter, when they allowed Isaiah Crowell to slip through and stay on his feet for a long touchdown. Things rapidly went downhill from there, and as Aaron Freeman of FalcFans noted, the Browns put up a season-high yardage total in this one. Overcoming the offense's struggles with three picks of Hoyer didn't quite get the job done, as the Falcons were completely incapable of shutting down the Browns on the last drive of the game.
The Falcons are still very much in the NFC South hunt—pending the results of tonight's Saints-Ravens game, they may actually still be in first—but they're 2-1 over the last three weeks against two NFC South teams and a good but not great Browns despite extraordinarily sloppy play. The money isn't on them walking away with a division title, to be frank, and while I love this team to an unreasonable degree, this season has been enormously taxing for all of us. We can root for a miracle, but we have to understand that it was a long shot before and an especially long one now with seven losses. In all likelihood, this loss will be the one we remember when we close this chapter in Falcons history.
I'm somewhat at a loss beyond that. This was a bad game, and the Falcons lost. Sometimes that's enough to paint a miserable picture for every Falcons fan.
The individual breakdowns follow, albeit slightly truncated. Read 'em.
- Julio Jones hadn't scored in seven weeks, as CBS kept helpfully reminding us. In what promised to be a tough matchup against Joe Haden, though, Jones found the end zone early on a 24 yard route.That's a positive note, though we have to balance that soon.
- While Julio scored, Roddy White continued to improve. He made more than one tough catch over the middle and looked faster and more elusive than he has in weeks en route to another dice for Atlanta. I hope he stays here until he retires, even if a lot of other changes are in the offing.
- Desmond Trufant set the tone early, sticking with Josh Gordon all the way down the field and getting a hand on the ball on a deep pass on the Browns' first drive. While he wasn't able to totally contain Gordon, he did limit the damage, and in the fourth quarter he intercepted a pass into the end zone with the Falcons down by two. You simply can't overstate how awesome Trufant is, and how big of a difference he makes for this football team when so few others are.
- Kemal Ishmael's costly penalty gave the Browns a touchdown, so you don't want to let him off the hook for that. At the same time, he managed to easily pick an ugly Brian Hoyer pass, and suddenly he has four interceptions on the year. Even with William Moore returning, he has a role for these Falcons.
- Devin Hester's massive balls rule the day. He fielded a missed Billy Cundiff field goal, casually pretended to down it and then rumbled 75 yards, coming a Joel Bitonio tackle away from scoring. He hasn't been a consistent asset this season, especially during the team's earlier losing streak, but Hester remains the most dangerous special teams player in the NFL.
When you consider that he was also a reliable receiving option today, I don't regret the free agent contract, even if the team around him hasn't necessarily been where we want. Okay, it hasn't.
- Dezmen Southward has a great sense of timing. His fourth quarter interception set the Falcons up for their field goal drive and briefly ignited a great spark of hope in me. That spark was extinguished.
- Let's start with this one: The coaching staff and players conspired to work terrible magic late in this game. The Falcons were clearly planning to put the game on Matt Bryant's leg no matter what at the end, so dialing up a pass play on 3rd and 2, especially a deep one, was arguably the worst possible call. It was made even worse by the execution. Even that might have been defensible if not for the timeout, which wound up giving the Browns 44 seconds and their full complement of timeouts to try to march down the field with.
Mike Smith's clock management has been a meme for a long time now, but this might have been the most egregious example of all.
- Matt Ryan had one of his worst games, period. He was staring down receivers, his throws were off and he both tossed an interception and fumbled a ball away in the first half alone. I defend Ryan primarily because he is consistently a very good to great quarterback, something that tends to get thrown out the window the moment he has a bad week, but he was lousy throughout much of this game and is having arguably his worst season as a pro. His body of work suggests this is the outlier, but I can't gloss over a bad performance like this one, regardless of that.
The biggest concern for me is how intermittently the Ryan-to-Julio connection has been working this year. Jones is one of the better receivers in football and Ryan is typically a top ten quarterback, and those two hooking up should be a foregone conclusion. Instead, we've been getting games like this one, where that connection is working only about 33% of the time. Both guys need to spend more time playing pass and catch and watching film intently this week, and that's true regardless of the outcome of this game. That deep, missed throw to Devin Hester on third down in a critical situation was another example of Ryan's middling game, and it's clear that Ryan is going to have to unlearn a few bad habits when the changes come this off-season, even if I still believe in him very strongly as the team's franchise quarterback.
- The ground game had a tasty matchup against a Browns defense gashed just last week by a rookie running back and missing a couple of key defenders. The Falcons proceeded to average about three yards a carry. That's grim.
- The Falcons continue to get off to slow, lousy starts. Their first drive saw Matt Ryan go 1/4 and only complete a 20 yard pass because of a tremendous effort by Roddy White, and they came out of the locker room as sluggish as humanly possible in the second half.
- Trufant was able to keep Gordon from running wild, but he wasn't able to really hold him in check. Gordon did consistent damage in a way Julio did not.
Julio got off to another blazing start early in the season, but it's tough to deny that Jones hasn't been stellar for a while now. What I don't know is how much to hang that on Ryan—there's plenty of "I think Julio's frustrated!" going around, but that's based on watching the cutaways to his face on TV—and how much of that is on Jones, who has had some costly drops and has struggled to get his customary separation. Given that Ryan has under-and-overthrown him in recent weeks, you have to spread it around, but with a major contract looming Jones has got to be wishing he was having a bigger year.
- Costly penalties are a recurring theme for this team, which has to practically boil Mike Smith's blood. This time, it was a fourth down missed pass play where Kemal Ishmael knocked down tight end Gary Barnidge, extending a drive that ended with an Isaiah Crowell touchdown run. Again, given the tight final margin, it's hard not to think that penalty in particular was extremely costly.
- I was rooting for Robert McClain to get back to his 2012 form, but it became apparent pretty early on that it wasn't in the cards. He was lit up at times out there, and the Falcons are now woefully thin at cornerback with his injury.
He was hardly alone, as Ishmael, Josh Wilson, and Southward in particular scuffled mightily in coverage times. Considering he may have suffered a season-ending injury in this one, though, nightmare game for McClain.
- The defense knew exactly what was coming on the last Cleveland drive, but it didn't matter because they couldn't stop it. Again, I hang a lot of this on the offense and Mike Smith's timeout, but the defense had a chance to force a turnover and get Cundiff out of comfortable field goal range. They simply could not do so.
For all Ryan's mighty struggles in this game, there's no point in denying that a better defense takes a so-so Browns offense and prevents that outcome, especially given the time left on the clock. I don't think it should totally erase the three turnovers and the mostly competent effort earlier in the game, but it needs to be mentioned.
Game MVP: No.
Theme Song: Wind whistling through desolate pines. You stare into the distance, that sound your only companion in a world devoid of meaning, light and love. It is comforting, in a way.
One Takeaway: The Falcons still have a wide range of outcomes on the table for this season, but at 4-7 their odds of a positive finish to the season just got longer. I believed major changes were coming before this week, and if anything, that belief has solidified.
Next Week: The Arizona Cardinals. They don't really have a quarterback at the moment and their pass rush is lousy, but they've played good football all season and they've had Ryan's number for years. Check out Revenge of the Birds for more.
Final Word: Whynowhy?
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