In the end, the defining loss of the Falcons season was the 14-9 stinker against the Vikings. In that game, the defense allowed a couple of maddening drives but held up well overall, and the offense essentially took all of the advantages implied by its talent and did nothing with them. The score of that game was eerily similar to the 15-10 loss the Falcons suffered yesterday against the Eagles, which ended a season that went further than many of us anticipated in October or even November.
This season, coming as it did after an absolutely wretched Super Bowl loss, looks fairly successful. The team shook off its supposed Super Bowl hangover and an awful run against the AFC East to go 10-6 and upset a favored #3 seed in the Rams, after all. Very few Super Bowl losers make it back to the big game the next year, and perhaps the expectations conferred by that nice 26-13 wins over the Rams were too much.
But like many of you, I’ll close out this season feeling as though the Falcons missed an opportunity. Atlanta’s hiring of Steve Sarkisian for offensive coordinator was controversial from the moment it was made, but for reasons that had much to do with him (but not everything to do with him), this offense regressed mightily from 2016. They scored 200 fewer points, roughly, and laid an absolute egg against an intimidating Eagles defense. The fact that they were so agonizingly close to winning does not offer me much succor.
It was made worse by the defense. The fact that Atlanta allowed Nick Foles to march down the field against them was infuriating and unfortunate after they made real strides in 2017, but it’s the mark of a defense that still isn’t quite there yet. Their progress was still one of the most encouraging things about this year.
At the end of the day, I’m not talking as much about the game as the season. What the Falcons did against Philadelphia was a worst case scenario, more or less, against a gifted football team down its franchise quarterback. They played tight and failed to execute again and again, not taking advantage of some lousy Nick Foles throws (most memorably at the end of the first half) and utterly failing to surprise and beat the Eagles defense outside of a dominant Tevin Coleman performance and a handful of nice Julio Jones catches. With their season on the line, the Falcons didn’t elevate their performance at all. They played the kind of game they did against the Vikings earlier in the year, albeit against an equally inspired opponent on the road. Resilience only takes you so far.
I have high expectations already for 2018, pending a solid offseason, but the Eagles game laid bare how much work Atlanta has to do. They’ve got to shore up the defensive line with free agency coming up, they need to get a truly reliable third receiver behind Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, and they need to think hard about adding upgrades at positions ranging from guard to cornerback. They could stand pat and win 9 or 10 games against a third place schedule, sure, but that’s not going to be good enough for anyone. I’d bet strongly on a little turnover for both the roster and the coaching staff, and my only hope is that the team ultimately makes smart decisions.
Here’s your full recap for yesterday. It is slightly truncated because frankly even after 11 years these kinds of losses still take a lot out of me, but we’ve got a lot to talk about this offseason. We’ll start doing so shortly.
- Matt Ryan made some very curious throws early in the game, including two near-interceptions and a late pass to Levine Toilolo that could have been a touchdown. Somehow, though, Ryan kept evading pressure, including on a play where he got spun around near the goal line and somehow found Devonta Freeman over the middle for a touchdown pass to put the Falcons up 10-6. The wheels came off a bit in the end, but Ryan fought through a ton of trash to have a decent day, as he did often this year.
- The Falcons got Tevin Coleman involved early running to the outside, and unsurprisingly, his combination of speed and elite moves led to some big carries. Perhaps the team’s most questionable decision was not getting him involved in their final series of plays after he averaged close to eight yards per carry and smoked the Eagles repeatedly, showing off his obvious skill. With free agency looming after 2018, it’ll be very interesting to see what the Falcons do with Coleman this coming season.
- Julio Jones had a Julio-like day. He was not perfect, but he made a series of contested catches that would be impossible for most but are routine for him, and he was obviously and justifiably the target on the team’s final play. Heading into next season, Julio will remain Atlanta’s deadliest wide receiver, but he needs to be more involved in the red zone.
- On a day where the pressure on Nick Foles was sorely lacking, I thought Takk McKinley and Adrian Clayborn offered more than most. Takk will go into next year as one of the team’s most important players, but Clayborn is a free agent, and I’m hopeful Atlanta can find a way to bring him back.
- Ricardo Allen forced a fumble and had a solid day. He’ll be back next year as a quietly stellar safety in this defense, and thank goodness for that.
- The Falcons were in the Divisional Round and had us thinking they would win for like, what, half the game? Again, I never would have thought that months ago.
- Devonta Freeman had a forgettable game, getting stonewalled by an excellent Philadelphia defensive line much of the day and missing a block to end the third quarter on what turned out to be a huge sack on Matt Ryan. Freeman finished the day with 10 carries for 7 yards. He’s a great back, but this was always going to be a tough matchup, and he just couldn’t deliver.
- Nothing says Atlanta Falcons like the sequence at the end of the first half, where Keanu Neal attempted to make an interception that somehow bounced into the hands of Torrey Smith for a decent gain. Then the Falcons allowed a sideline catch with one second left and Jake Elliott hit the field goal to close the gap to 10-9 for Philadelphia. Considering how close the Falcons got to scoring, you can argue that a fluke play cost the Falcons the season, which seems kind of appropriate.
- Steve Sarkisian will be back next year, but there needs to a huge focus on improvement from him and the rest of the offensive staff. The Falcons left a massive number of points on the board this year, and while some of that comes back to mistakes and execution for the players themselves, the team showed very little aptitude for making big plays and getting playmakers open in critical situations all year long. Against a truly great defense in the Eagles, the Falcons scored even fewer points than I feared they would, and Sark will be asked to get much more out of this team a year from now. Let us hope he can.
- Just about everything, really. I don’t want to demean the effort in this game, because it was not in any way lacking, and the players are undoubtedly as crushed as we are this morning. But you can’t ignore the fact that the run defense turned in its worst performance in a month, the pass defense had a worse effort than usual at exactly the wrong moment, and the offense simply couldn’t get it done much of the day. This was a Falcons team playing a very good Eagles team on the road, but they fell short. Losing sight of that because I feel badly for the players or coaches or even us would be a mistake, in my opinion, because this is not Dan Quinn’s first year any longer. 2018 is a year to expect more.
Tevin Coleman, who ran like a bat out of hell and was the team’s most effective player overall. It’s a shame he didn’t get more chances to impact the game.
This team, with all its talent, needs to improve to fight for the NFC crown in 2018.
The offseason. Oh god, it’s so long and lonely.