The Atlanta Falcons needed one win. Just get to 5-4, bring back Deion Jones, and make a game run at the last seven games. There was no reason to believe they wouldn’t at least compete for that win on the road against Cleveland.
Yet they did not, and that’s what makes this the single most disappointing loss of the year. You can believe, as I do, that the Browns have talent and are on the cusp of being a solid football team. You can believe, as I do, that this Falcons team is at least solid even with all their injuries. But when you see Atlanta lose 28-16 to this Browns team, and you see them barely looking competitive after the first quarter, that belief is tested.
Objectively, Atlanta has the talent to hang 30 points on good defenses, and the talent to hold decent offenses under 30. That’s not enough to win all the time, but it should be enough to avoid a loss like this. What happened Sunday was wholly inconsistent with what we’ve come to expect from both the Browns and Falcons this season, yet it started to feel inevitable sometime around the second quarter.
Simply put, Atlanta got outplayed, outhustled, and outcoached. You saw it in the way the Falcons played on offense, where they stuck with passes underneath throughout the game. You saw it in the way the defense was embarrassed, to the tune of Nick Chubb’s best game and zero sacks. You saw it in the way Baker Mayfield scooped up his own fumble and Atlanta was routinely beaten both to the ball and to the end zone. And you saw it when Dan Quinn and company couldn’t challenge that crucial Austin-Hooper-touchdown-that-was or make the kind of changes that might have averted this. It was frustrating, and the net you could cast was so wide that the blame game seems beside the point. This was a bad football game from a team that seemed to be on the cusp of something better.
It is especially disappointing and frustrating to hear that this team might have been looking by the Browns for a Cowboys team that probably isn’t any better than Cleveland in the first place. The Falcons were a .500 football team with a crippling number of injuries and playoff hopes that were iffy at best, and they may have presumed that the best Browns team in years was not good enough to be on the field with them. I am a fan of this team and this current regime, as you all know, but if that’s the case it’s a pretty big indictment of their ability to prepare and stay focused. That, more than any final score, is the kind of thing that exposes a coaching staff and front office to doubt from an involved owner like Arthur Blank.
Practically speaking, this team is now 4-5 and has to go 10-6 or maybe 9-7 to make the playoffs. That means they have seven games left and can afford, at most, 1-2 losses against a slate that features the Saints, Panthers, Ravens and Packers. It’s not mathematically impossible that they get through that—they’ve already shown us they can beat the odds by going from 1-4 to 4-4—but they can’t afford a single dud like this again if they want to make it. I want to believe they have that kind of magical run in them, but this game made it newy obvious that those hopes are fraught.
On to the full recap.
- Tevin Coleman continues to be a quality option for this offense, picking up chunk yardage on the ground and serving as a valuable weapon through the air.
- Julio Jones got to 10,000 yards faster than any receiver in NFL history. If that was all he did against the Browns, it still would have been worth noting, but he also added his second touchdown in two weeks on a screen.
- Austin Hooper only averaged 5.6 yards per reception, but this was a day where the Falcons were weirdly, consistently reluctant to try the Cleveland defense deep, which was one of the offense’s fatal flaws for the day. Hooper reeled in 10 catches on 11 targets, caught a touchdown (technically two), and frequently made tough, contested grabs. He’s having a very good season, and it’s hardly his fault Atlanta lost this.
- I don’t really care what Damontae Kazee’s flaws are, the Falcons are going to have to figure out a way to make him a prominent part of the defense going forward. With the Browns driving in the second quarter, he read the route and managed a pick and huge pickup to follow it. That was his fifth interception of the year—the most Atlanta’s had in many moons—and it turned the tides for Atlanta.
- The offense was inexcusably bad against the Browns, with just 16 points. Besides Coleman, Hooper and maybe Julio, there weren’t many inspiring performances to fall back on. The line struggled to give Ryan time, Ryan missed some throws he was making in his sleep earlier in the season, both Ridley and Sanu made costly mistakes, and the ground game just never had the opportunity to get going after the Falcons well way behind.
- The defense looked pretty soft early on, with the Browns’ second drive picking up huge chunks of yardage on their second drive, which culminated in a nice Baker Mayfield touchdown pass where the receiver simply got higher than Robert Alford. Soft coverage and so-so pass rush doomed the Falcons over and over again earlier in the year, so it was not fun to see that return.
Unfortunately, aside from Damontae Kazee’s interception, it didn’t get much better. The addition of Bruce Irvin did not give this pass rush any kind of lift, as they managed zero sacks and one Brooks Reed strip that wasn’t. Their coverage was indifferent much of the day until it was too late, and the run defense was simply gashed early on. If they did turn a corner after the Washington game, they forgot which corner it was, and they could not re-discover the way.
- The pass rush is so bad it’s going to necessitate major changes in the offseason. Takk and Jarrett and maybe Crawford are still very capable of generating pressure but didn’t against Cleveland, while Irvin did only a little bit in his first game and everyone else did nothing. It was a disappointing effort for a team that should have improved with the addition of Irvin, if only a little bit, manage zero sacks and very little pressure.
- It’s not clear to me how the Falcons missed the opportunity to challenge the Austin Hooper touchdown grab that was ruled down at the six inch line, but they did, and it cost them like a minute of gametime as they were trying to furiously rally. It’s sort of incredible and inexcusable that no one noticed that Hooper was in the end zone and thought to tell Quinn he should throw the flag.
So many missed opportunities Sunday.
- I don’t know that it’s worth singling players out, by and large, when the whole team suffered a catastrophic failure. You can believe this team has talent and heart and believe they didn’t show any signs of it on Sunday, as I do, but the timing of that lackluster effort was every bit as disheartening as you’d think it would be. They almost didn’t look like they were ready for the game.
Any way you slice it, that’s awful. The Falcons knew how badly they needed this game and knew the challenges they’d be facing in Cleveland, you’d think, and yet they fell well short of that goal.
Damontae Kazee for making one of the few big plays in this one, or Austin Hooper for battling for jump balls well after the game was over. Take your pick.
This Falcons team is either less capable than we thought or more susceptible to feeling its oats. Either way, not good.
The Dallas Cowboys, who represents a must-win game at home and are not the kind of team you should be looking by the Browns for. Visit Blogging the Boys for more.