The Atlanta Falcons were coming off two quality efforts in a row, albeit against AFC East teams, and went into Cleveland just needing to keep that momentum going to keep the season alive. Instead, they did the one thing they could not do: Came out flat and played like absolute garbage on the road against the Browns.
I worried coming into this game that the cold and the turnover-happy nature of this Cleveland defense would be a problem for Atlanta, but I felt like the Falcons were healthy enough and good enough to weather that. Instead, they looked miserable on defense, surprisingly passive and error-prone on offense, and as a result they found themselves down four points at the half and down 18 in the third quarter. I don’t think even the most pessimistic among you imagined that.
What happened? The Browns have talent, but they also did a brilliant job of putting their playmakers in a position to succeed over and over again. They sprang Chubb for big gains and gave Baker Mayfield open looks for his dynamic backs, and to his credit, the rookie was up to the task. The Falcons, meanwhile, missed tackles and blew coverages on defense and suffered drops, fumbles, and poor decision-making on offense. It was a combination of the ineptitude of the Eagles game on offense and the many failures of the Saints, Bengals and Steelers games on defense, and it led to the only result you could possibly expect from that combination.
It’s not easy to say this after the Falcons reeled off three wings, added Bruce Irvin, and were on the cusp of getting Deion Jones back, but this is probably it unless Atlanta has drastic defensive improvement and more consistency on offense in their future. I was drawn in by the idea that this team had built up some momentum, but as an avowed momentum truther, I should have known better. The Falcons have tougher matchups the rest of the way and can realistically afford just one or two more losses if they want to stay in the playoff picture. If this kind of performance is a possibility going forward—and it is, given what Atlanta did here and how it maps with what they did earlier in the season—then all we’re doing is hoping for the best possible results the rest of the way. What a dispiriting loss for a team that was keeping hope alive to this point.
On to the full recap, if you can stomach it.
The Browns started off with the football, and they got a quick first down on a pass to Jarvis Landry. Two straight Nick Chubb runs picked up nine yards, putting the Browns on 3rd and 1. A direct snap to Chubb failed and the Browns had to punt. The Falcons got the ball just shy of the 20.
A two yard Tevin Coleman run was followed by a first down pass to Austin Hooper to get things cooking. Coleman then took it for close to 16 yards on a toss. Hooper got it again for a short pickup through the air, but then Ryan just missed a diving Ridley and had to throw it away on third down under pressure. Punt.
The Browns once again got a quick first down, this one to Breshard Perriman. Then the Falcons swarmed Nick Chubb for a short gain. Then the Browns kept rolling, with a first down pass to David Njoku and another pickup by Chubb. Across midfield, the Browns got two very short pickups thanks to nice tackling by Bruce Irvin, Grady Jarrett and Robert Alford, and then got a first down on a sideline pass to Landry. Then Baker Mayfield got pressure in his face from Grady Jarrett and threw a bomb to the end zone that was caught over Robert Alford. Browns lead.
Falcons 0 - Browns 7
Needing to respond early, the Falcons gave it to Coleman and got six quick yards. Then he found Coleman on the sideline for more yardage. A short Coleman run later, the Falcons got Ryan on a rollout to Logan Paulsen for another first down. Hooper got his third reception of the game for a six yard pickup following that, and Ito Smith picked up three more on a run. Facing third down and short, the Falcons got nothing from Smith and got to 4th and 1. They snapped it to Mohamed Sanu, who created a little doubt and opened up some room for Smith to pick up the first down.
The Falcons tossed it to Calvin Ridley, who dropped the toss but managed to scoop it up for three yards. Hooper got his fourth catch of the game to pick up yet another first down for Atlanta. Then things went awry, with Ryan not finding an open man on first down, a high snap costing them second down as Ryan simply had to fall on it, and a moderate gain to Mohamed Sanu to set up a 40 yard field goal try. Thankfully, Giorgio Tavecchio nailed it.
Falcons 3 - Browns 7
Unfortunately, the Browns got going right away. Nick Chubb froze Takk for a big pickup and then got the first down on the next play, and then another first down followed. Mayfield was having little trouble picking apart the defense, with Perriman getting ahead of Alford. Thankfully, Damontae Kazee is the Atlantan God of Interceptions and came up with his fifth of the season on the next play, putting the Falcons in excellent position to score.
They took advantage right away, with a big pickup by Julio Jones and a dart to Austin Hooper putting them close to the end zone. Then Coleman picked up the first down, then Coleman got stuffed, then Ryan found Paulsen for a short gain. Then Julio Jones picked up his second touchdown of the season on a screen play, giving Atlanta the lead.
Falcons 10 - Browns 7
The Browns continued to prey on Atlanta, though. A short pass to Antonio Callaway went for big yardage, and then they got to a third and short situation with a pass to Orson Charles of all people. Unfortunately, Deadrin Senat could only get an arm on Nick Chubb, who picked up 11. Then Chubb got four more and then picked up a huge first down to bring Cleveland into the red zone. He was absolutely gashing the Falcons on the ground, which was especially discouraging after their efforts against the Giants and Washington. There was a false start and a short play, but then Mayfield found Chubb for a touchdown pass to put Cleveland up with just :55 on the clock.
Falcons 10 - Browns 14
The Falcons got a quick pickup for a first down, but then a short pass to Ito ran a ton of time off the clock and Ito dropped his next opportunity. Then Ryan was sacked to take us into halftime.
The Falcons lost eight yards on their first play of the half, and then a short pass to Mohamed Sanu went awry when he stretched the ball out and fumbled it, giving Cleveland possession.
The Browns could have been in trouble when Brooks Reed got Baker Mayfield to fumble, but Mayfield picked it up and picked up a few yards, and then Duke Johnson got a first down. Then Chubb picked up a huge gain, followed by a short gain for Duke Johnson to put Cleveland inside the red zone. Mayfield then found Johnson over the middle for his third touchdown pass of the game, putting Cleveland up by 11.
Falcons 10 - Browns 21
It was fair to say that the Falcons were in trouble, so this was a must-score drive. Tevin Coleman started things off right with a big pickup, but then Matt Ryan threw a hurried pass that didn’t get to Ito Smith. The Falcons failed to get much of anything going and had to punt, and we were officially at the point where alarm bells were ringing.
And the Browns capitalized. After a Baker Mayfield incompletion, Nick Chubb ran it 92 yards for a touchdown after the entire defense got beat and Foye Oluokun couldn’t make a last gasp tackle. The Falcons were pretty much cooked at this point.
Falcons 10 - Browns 28
A pass to Sanu and a run by Smith got the Falcons an early first down, but they immediately stalled out afterwards, with Ryan missing Julio over the middle and not being able to scramble for the first down on third down. Punt.
Once again, the Browns did what they needed to do. They got moving in a hurry and I thought they’d put the nail in the coffin, but the Falcons actually managed to force a fumble and...no, it didn’t count. At least the Falcons eventually forced the punt, but Cleveland had already run a ton of time off the clock.
The Falcons did get going waaaaay too late, with passes to Mohamed Sanu keying the drive. Marvin Hall also got in on the action, picking up 12 on first down, and fourth quarter here we are.
The Falcons got all the way down to the goal line, but tragically, they weren’t up to the task of actually punching it in. They fell short when Tevin Coleman was slammed to the ground while trying to helicopter in, Coleman couldn’t punch it in, and then Ryan couldn’t hit Eric Saubert in the back of the end zone on fourth down. Turnover on downs.
The Browns just wanted to run the clock out at this point. They managed to do that to some extent by sticking with the ground game, but they did have to punt. Atlanta was still technically alive at this point.
Their next drive got them somewhere with passes to Mohamed Sanu and Ito Smith, but it was Calvin Ridley who broke it open with a nice catch and run. Unfortunately, the clock was ticking the whole time, putting Atlanta in a position where they couldn’t really catch up. Austin Hooper picked up a catch that I thought was technically in the end zone but was called as a catch inside the one yard line, and Atlanta didn’t challenge. Then two straight incompletions, a run stopped well short, and a miraculous actual touchdown where Matt Ryan threw it up under pressure, Hooper caught it, and spun his way into the end zone. Finally, the team scored, and went for two, but Ryan was sacked.
Falcons 16 - Browns 28
Cleveland just wanted to run out the clock. They picked up four yards on two carries with Chubb, and with third down looming, ran Baker Mayfield and got nothing. Punt. Fatally, the Falcons had to call a timeout, their last of the game.
This drive for the Falcons was productive, but chewed a ton of time off the clock, which was unfortunately the theme of the entire day for a lackadaisical Falcons team. Ryan was throwing darts at last to everyone for a series, but it stalled out like so many other drives with missed opportunities and a Ryan strip sack. Atlanta lost.