I really thought it was going to happen again.
I really, truly thought they were going to Falcon again.
In the waning minutes of the Atlanta Falcons’ latest tilt against the new rival Philadelphia Eagles, Carson Wentz was fresh off being sacked on third down with seconds ticking and faced a fourth-and-long with a zone-heavy Falcons backfield.
You rarely make this play if you’re the offense. It’s almost the cruel qualifier, a lame duck opportunity to throw caution to the wind and pray for a miracle.
Unless you’re playing the Falcons, for some reason.
Wentz completes a jump ball to Nelson Agholor to give the team a fresh set of downs, and you just felt it creeping in, didn’t you? That feeling we’ve felt so often, that feeling that another Falconing was upon us.
But this time, the team held firm. They got three stops deep in their own territory and made “the play” to win the game, with Isaiah Oliver pushing hard against Zach Ertz and Keanu Neal closing in to keep him from extending the ball for a first down.
The clock would run, and the Falcons would finally get a win against the Doug Pederson Eagles after three unsuccessful attempts (2016, 2018 times two).
It felt good. But it also felt weird.
On one end, the Falcons shook off a Week 1 dumpster dive and took down one of the supposed top dogs in the NFC. That matters for something.
The team showed that it could mentally withstand the worst possible start to the season and put together an at least somewhat complete effort against a quality Eagles team.
But it also began to, as they always have in these types of high-pressure moments, take water and rely on a photo finish to take down an opponent who should’ve never been allowed back in the game.
Why do the Falcons always blow leads?
I know the obvious answer is “well, it’s because they’re the Falcons,” but I really sometimes wonder what systemic problem lies within this team that makes them cough up leads like Fuzzy the cat hacks up the day’s fur ball.
The Dan Quinn style of “fast and physical” defense will always come with a timer, and we’ve seen too many times where a lack of discipline and empty tanks has allowed offenses to carve up exhausted an exhausted secondary with little pressure applied.
Sunday night, the Falcons blew that Agholor coverage, only to save themselves in the end with sound defending. That’s the part you’re encouraged with. If they’re going to blow the lead, at least hold your stomach until we pull over.
But they do know how to do that. In the past, the team has escaped their blown leads with effective defending. The most uncomfortable part of Sunday night comes with the fact that we’ve seen this movie before.
We’ve seen Falcons games where they’ve gotten wins against quality opponents not at full strength, and we’ve seen those wins come at the final whistle, practically. We’ve seen lesser opponents roar back when they had no business doing so, and we often forget how some of those wins have come: in inexcusable fashion.
I love Quinn and believe in his plan. I think Sunday night’s win was absolutely a show of maturity, and very often, does chalk up as a loss in the Falcons’ column.
Winning against the Eagles is not something you take lightly, and I do think it shows a Falcons team that can win a lot of games this year.
But they’re still blowing leads, not cashing in on opportunities to seal doors and letting teams hang around that have no reason being there.
The offense’s turnover and mistake function has never really made a lot of sense, either, and could probably be attributed to different factors at different times. Matt Ryan is not an error machine, and his pick Sunday night late was what it was.
The offense’s failures over the years on this side of the equation might always stem from the offensive line not holding its grit in key moments down the stretch, though Jake Matthews’ pancake block to in part spring Julio Jones free for the game winner felt like a step in the right direction there.
I don’t want to be Mr. Gloomsville because I’m just too happy about the way the Falcons won. The Jones touchdown is already the best thing to ever happen at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and might be an all-time play for the player and the franchise.
It was jubilant for a team that needs some joy. The Falcons and their fans have been through a lot of grief and pain over the years, and moments like that are special. They cover up a lot of scars and help you forget a lot of bad times with the Birds.
But they still had to cross fingers too close to the finish, and it’s just not fun to remember that Agholor missing a game-winning touchdown on that final Philly drive might mean Atlanta’s 1-1 record is more attributed to luck than skill.
The Falcons can’t keep doing this. They need to learn to be a football team that can close the door and lock the bolt. Blowing leads is just becoming unacceptable for a team with this much talent on the roster and in the coaching room.
It can’t become more ingrained in this team’s identity than it already is.
Every game is a new opportunity to put that reputation to rest. In that regard, the team continued to fail Sunday night.
The win felt great; it means a lot. The Falcons will be a good team in 2019, and have the right guys in the locker room and on the sidelines to get them where they want to go.
But the way they sometimes win games has always led to the way they always lose them.
If they keep blowing leads and playing not to lose, this team will never get where it wants to go.