This figured to be a wild one, given that it was both the last game of the season and it was against the Saints. The back-and-forth contest that ensued delivered on that, with the two teams keeping it close until the end. That the Falcons wound up falling apart in the end is no particular surprise to anyone who has watched this team this year, but it still was painful to watch.
The Falcons are officially a .500 team, and that's probably the perfect mark for a squad that started 5-0 and beat the undefeated Panthers, but also dropped six straight games and frittered away this winnable one against the Saints. It encapsulates the roller coaster nature of the season, and the sense that the entire year was just the Falcons huffing and puffing on a treadmill going nowhere in particular. You have to tip your cap to the Saints, who always treat these like big games, and were able to come away with the win, but this Falcons team learned a lot about itself in this game and this season, and most of it was not pretty.
The mistakes that defined the 2015 season also defined this game. The Falcons were a blocked field goal, Devonta Freeman fumble, Matt Ryan interception, and costly Andy Levitre penalty away from winning this one, and the fact that they lost by only three after doing all of those things wrong is extremely frustrating. The Falcons need to be a better coached, generally better team in 2016 to improve on their 8-8 mark, and with a new stadium looming and the ultra-competitive Dan Quinn at the helm in his second year, they won't lack for motivation. All they lack is margin of error, with Matt Ryan getting to be another year older and so many holes on the squad once more.
All in all, this season can't be viewed as a tremendous disappointment, given that it was Quinn's first year and a sea change for the organization as a whole. It also cannot be viewed as a success, and my sad little shrug for this year's team will be something a lot closer to anger if we don't see improvement soon. But I both digress and rant.
On to the full recap.
- Matt Ryan didn't exactly have a challenging defense to square off against, but he was still sharp as an angular bowl full of tacks through most of the first three quarters. The last three weeks have given us heavy doses of the Ryan we all expected to see in 2015, which has to give you some hope for next season even as that costly late interception erases some goodwill.
- Devonta Freeman had room to run and room on his routes, and he gashed the Saints all day long. If not for that costly fumble, this might have gone down as one of his finer games of the second half, and perhaps it still does.
- Vic Beasley showed flashes of his Week 16 form against the Saints, but appeared shaken up at best and was basically a non-factor the rest of the way. Beasley's going to take a leap in 2016, which is good, because the rest of the pass rush remains non-existent.
- Weirdly, Charles Godfrey and Kemal Ishmael were two of the better defenders on the field yesterday. Very weirdly, in Godfrey's case, as he was one of the team's best bets against Benjamin Watson and forced a crucial fumble. Ishmael will be back as a backup, but it'll be interesting to see whether Godfrey gets a new contract as a bridge safety, particularly if William Moore is gone.
- What a play by Akeem King on the Saints' last drive in the fourth quarter, knocking the ball away on a third down pass to Benjamin Watson. Feel-good play for the seventh-round rookie, even if it didn't end up saving the game.
- Matt Ryan's six fourth quarter picks have all come at amazingly bad times. It makes a quarterback known for being cool under pressure look like the moment is too big for him, and as much as we like to harp on Kyle Shanahan and his receivers and the offensive line (and they are all culprits when we're discussing this offense's struggles, mind you), Ryan's interceptions have been some of the most costly mistakes this team has made all year.
He's going nowhere, of course, and is a good bet to bounce back in 2016. If he doesn't, things will get very interesting in 2017, when the dead money on his contract goes from ridiculous to semi-manageable. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though.
- Andy Levitre was supposed to help stabilize guard and bounce back after degrading rapidly in Tennessee, but I'm not sure that happened. He was the author of an awful unnecessary roughness penalty that took the Falcons out of field goal range in the fourth quarter, and he's generally been a so-so blocker and penalty machine all season long. I'm not willing to guarantee that he's here in 2016. The entire interior may well be blown up, given that Chris Chester is a free agent, Mike Person has struggled with snaps all year long, and neither James Stone nor Gino Gradkowski looks like an answer.
- If you needed a reminder that the Falcons are still a work in progress on defense, this game provided it. Benjamin Watson was still able to get open, Tim Hightower pulled off quality runs, and Drew Brees was able to whip the ball all over the field most of the time when he needed to. The Falcons were going to struggle a little bit against a quality Saints offense, but it was supremely disappointing to see them disintegrate again. The Falcons will add talent and athleticism at all three levels of their defense heading into 2016, and it will be very welcome.
Linebacker is the most crucial spot. It's possible and even probable that Brooks Reed was hampered by his groin injury all season and will be better in 2016, but Paul Worrilow probably stacks up best as a part-time starter or reserve capable of rushing the passer, authoring the occasional big play and playing the run, not as a full-time guy. Justin Durant started off the season well but has been hurt and ineffective for weeks upon weeks now, and he's one of projected surprise roster cuts heading into 2016. The Falcons sorely need a top-flight player here.
- Roddy White would like to finish his career in Atlanta, and I think we'd all like to see that happen, but up-and-down days like Sunday where he makes some nice catches and drops a crucial pass downfield illustrate what a question mark his status is heading into the offseason. I do think he'll be back.
- The mistakes! This was a callback to all those games the Falcons lost solely because of forced and unforced errors earlier in the season, and it's not an exaggeration to say if the field goal hadn't been blocked OR Ryan hadn't thrown his pick OR Devonta Freeman hadn't fumbled in the red zone, this Atlanta team would probably have a feel-good 9-7 record right now.
- The referees called some bad penalties. I know you're stunned.
Game MVP: The fans. You endured this! You deserve some recognition.
Theme Song: Mood music.
One Takeaway: The Falcons are a .500 team, and everything from their talent to their blunders suggests that's exactly what they should have been in 2015.
Next Week: We confront the offseason, and watching other teams in the playoffs. Sigh.
Final Word: Goodnight.