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Falcons vs. Panthers recap: Atlanta’s unlucky, unreliable, unreal loss

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The Falcons lost by three points in a game where they did just about everything wrong after the first quarter.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When we tell the story of the 2017 Atlanta Falcons, what will be the story we choose to tell?

Will we tell those who weren’t there to see it that this incredibly talented, smart football team was unlucky and unbelievably sloppy when it mattered most? Perhaps you’ll point to Austin Hooper running the wrong route, the agonizing Julio Jones touchdown drop, the inability to get just one stinking yard three carries in a row, or the penalties that marred this game. Maybe you’ll point to this Panthers game and say that this is when you knew the Falcons of 2017 were doomed, because as good as they could’ve been and should’ve been, we saw too many mistakes yet again for any team to overcome. What else could you say after they squandered an impressive ten point lead?

Maybe you’ll tell your grandkids that 2016 was a mirage, that the talent we all saw wasn’t really up to snuff after all, and the coaching was inspirational messaging minus a plan. You’ll point to the defense’s baffling inability to contain a pedestrian Carolina ground attack, Steve Sarkisian’s impossibly weird play calling on third downs, and the team’s repeated inability to pick up a single f***ing yard when they needed it. You’ll point to this Panthers game and say it was just the latest in a string of examples of how the Falcons weren’t good enough, and couldn’t be good enough t

Perhaps, by some impossible miracle, you’ll point to this game as a turning point, the last game where all the mistakes and bad luck and backbreaking calls happened, and the Falcons figured things out. Maybe the shimmer of unreality that has been in front of us all year does go away, and we see a contender shining behind it when all is said and done. It is getting awfully late in the year for that, sure, but perhaps.

In a roundabout way, here’s my point: We haven’t had the full story written, and we’re not at all sure how to interpret what we’re seeing here. I lean toward a talented team playing undisciplined, sloppy football when it matters most, but the most maddening and confusing thing about this Falcons squad is how difficult they are to define. The defense has been far stingier this year and has had brilliant stretches, but they’re still responsible for lousy play against the run and too many missed opportunities. The offense has been utterly unstoppable for brief, shining moments, and destroyed by mistakes and poor play otherwise. This team is .500, sure, but the trend lines tell us this isn’t going to be a story with a happy ending, and we’ll be left to tease out our favored storyline.

Where does that leave us now, though? Searching for answers, obviously, but also confronting the reality that the Falcons are falling behind in their divisional race with games against Dallas and Seattle looming. That’s obviously not an ideal place to be, and we just haven’t seen this team put together the kind of complete, end-to-end effort we’d need to see to be convinced they can pull out wins in either of those games.

The Falcons aren’t finished, but frankly, this loss absolutely killed my ability to feel confident in them going forward. I plan to set my expectations as close to zero as possible for a blogger who writes about this team every day and needs to project their performance, and I’ll hope there’s a happy ending when all is said and done. We’re just not at the point where we can realistically expect that the mistakes and unbelievable misfortune that have defined this season are going to go away.

On to the full recap, which may be a little truncated due to sadness and such.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan had a very good game that will be partially defined by two mistakes that proved to be huge in hindsight, namely his inability or unwillingness to throw it away on the first of two sacks that killed one of the Falcons’ precious drives, and his slight overthrow to Julio Jones in the end zone early in the game. Both proved costly.

But really, how much are we going to hang on the quarterback, here? He wasn’t at fault on the interception that featured an errant Austin Hooper route, or the touchdown pass Julio Jones dropped in the end zone, or the times the line simply couldn’t block well enough for him to drop back and throw. Ryan has had genuinely bad games this year and is not playing at his 2016 level, but this was a good effort undone by some big mistakes that were not in his control.

  • Julio Jones ate. He finished the first half with three grabs for 81 yards, each one of them a long, impressive one against an improved Carolina secondary, and added another three grabs for 37 yards after the half. The drop was something deeply unfortunate and rare, and it’s entirely on him, but it doesn’t erase the good work he did the rest of the day, either.
  • Vic Beasley was one of the few Falcons to get any semblance of pressure on Cam Newton through most of the day Sunday, and he wound up with his fifth sack of the year and a brutal tackle in the backfield on a Christian McCaffrey run.
  • Give Grady Jarrett all the credit in the world: With the rest of the defense struggling around him, he repeatedly got after the Panthers’ ground game and picked up a couple of big tackles for losses. He’s a force of nature, but he can’t do it alone.
  • The defense balled out in the first quarter. They stopped one drive cold and forced two fumbles, keeping the Panthers scoreless while the offense got to work. Unfortunately, those good times didn’t exactly last, as Carolina adjusted and ran the ball down their throats in the second and third quarters, in particular. It was great to see the physicality there, though, and the turnovers that came with it.

It’s also important to note that for all their flaws, this defense continues to keep games close and respectable. If the offense was performing at even two-thirds of the level it was in 2016 most of these games, they wouldn’t be .500 right now, and Marquand Manuel and his players deserve credit for that. At the very least.

  • He was dealing with injuries—and I think, ultimately, that’s why Atlanta couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to field goals at a couple of crucial moments—but Matt Bryant still hit a 53 yard field goal and a couple of extra points. The biggest question with him at this point is not whether he can still kick at an extremely high level, but if injuries are going to continue to be a concern going forward.

The Ugly

  • A Matt Ryan overthrow to Julio Jones in the end zone sort of marked the first drive, but it’s worth remembering that minus two consecutive penalties on Julio and Wes Schweitzer, the Falcons aren’t even in a position where a strike and then a nice 10 yard screen pass to Mohamed Sanu lead to nothing more than a field goal. No matter how many times the Falcons talk about the importance of execution, penalties seem to rear their ugly heads, and the Falcons got popped with a ton of them Sunday.
  • Austin Hooper looks, for long stretches of the game, as if he’s on the cusp of a breakout. Then he drops a ball, gets hit with a penalty, and runs the wrong route on an interception late in the second quarter, and you’re left to wonder when he’s going to put together a complete game like he is capable of. Ultimately, all those plays were costly for Atlanta on Sunday, and they can’t continue indefinitely or Levine Toilolo’s relative dependability is going to get him into the starting spot for the short-term.
  • Steve Sarkisian continues to do baffling things on a weekly basis, even if the offense seems to slowly be getting better overall. This time, it was three straight unproductive runs in the second quarter after the Falcons had been moving the ball well, including a fourth and short run that everyone in the entire stadium saw coming. You have to trust your players to execute at the end of the day, but when you’re running into the heart of a quality run defense on three straight plays, you really can’t be surprised with that result, and it wasn’t as if the Panthers didn’t telegraph that they were squatting up front to stop the run. He did not call an awful game—execution doomed the Falcons multiple times—but that and too many screen passes that simply do not work will earn you a stern glare.
  • Given how frequently we knew Cam Newton would be running, he was able to do so with very little impediment Sunday. The Falcons simply couldn’t get the pass rush going, and Newton was able to take the ball down and rip off huge gains on a regular basis. Couple that with Christian McCaffrey having his first effective game in a while and you can see why the Falcons did struggle to get Carolina off the field at times, which led to field goals, which led inevitably to a portion of the blame for this loss.
  • This was a total team loss, as so many have been this year. A better performance by the defense against the run would have kept the score down for this otherwise inept Panthers offense, while a better performance by the offense would have taken significant pressure off a defense that was on the field a ton, and a better (and in Bryant’s case, healthier) special teams performance would have given the team more enviable field position when they began their drives. You can pull at any number of threads, here, but they all lead back to the conclusion that simply didn’t play well enough in any facet of the game to walk out of Bank of America Stadium with a win.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Nope.

One Takeaway

We can’t trust these Falcons with a lead. I guess we never should have trusted any Falcons team with a lead, but still.

Next Week

The Falcons are finally headed home to Atlanta, but it’ll be to play the Dallas Cowboys, still a playoff-caliber contender in the NFC. It’s a big game, but then, they all are now.

Check out Blogging the Boys for more on Dallas.

Final Word

Expletive.