On Sunday, something familiar and terrible happened again. The Atlanta Falcons went into the very end of the game with a lead, and they lost it as time expired.
Per ESPN’s not-exactly-perfect but fundamentally sound win probability numbers, Atlanta blew its third game in 2020 with a win probability of 98%. Each time, they’ve done so in unique fashion, with four punts and a missed goal paired with a last minute interception dooming them against Chicago, a complete defensive collapse and botched onside kick recovery killing their chances against Dallas, and now poor defense and costly decision-making hurting them against Detroit. These failures have no common threads besides the fact that these are the Atlanta Falcons, and thus they seem to be a team that will make these mistakes in perpetuity.
The Falcons had a win probability as high as 98.7%, per ESPN's win probability model.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 25, 2020
It was Atlanta's 3rd loss this season with a win probability of at least 98%, the most by a team in the last 20 seasons.
The rest of the NFL has 4 such losses combined this season. pic.twitter.com/EqJnds0et1
Consider this: The Falcons who lost to Chicago and Dallas fired head coach Dan Quinn and special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, and the team that has lost these kinds of leads in past years did not have Raheem Morris at the helm or Todd Gurley at running back. Yet the Falcons who lost against the Lions still squandered a 14-10 lead at the half and a 22-16 lead with just over a minute to go in the game, the latter of which seems extremely unlikely until you remember these are indeed the Atlanta Falcons, who do this sort of thing all the time.
The Falcons started the misery party in the fourth quarter by marching downfield and then failing to convert a 4th down attempt from the Detroit 13. This was not an indefensible play call, given that Atlanta was perfectly capable of picking up 5 yards and would’ve set themselves up to ensure at least overtime with an 8 point lead, but the call and execution were not there and they gave Detroit the ball back. Detroit followed that up with a costly missed field goal that should have set the Falcons up to win, but Ryan wound up fumbling on a 3rd and 10 sack and the Lions converted that field goal try to go up by 2 points.
At this point, there was not a lot of time left in the game, and the Falcons moved swiftly down into the red zone. All they needed to do in order to seal the game was get a first down with Gurley, run out the clock, and hit an absolute chip shot field goal try for Younghoe Koo. Instead, Gurley broke through a Detroit defensive line that wasn’t trying all that hard to bring him down, shrugged off one legitimate tackle attempt, and then tried to stop but ultimately fell down with the ball crossing the plane, resulting in a touchdown. Atlanta converted a two point conversion attempt just in case the Lions missed an extra point, but with 1:04 on the clock they moved pretty effortlessly down the field and scored a touchdown to win 23-22.
By this point it should be obvious that some combination of awful luck, awful execution, and awful coaching decisions are dooming the Falcons any time they find themselves in a tight game, something they avoided against Minnesota by simply blowing the Vikings off the field. In this one the Detroit run defense I legitimately expected Atlanta to have great success against was terrific, holding Gurley and Brian Hill to 66 yards on 25 carries, and the team still kept plowing into the teeth of that defense, costing them key opportunities. When they were asked to think ahead to potential end game outcomes, they made defensible but costly decisions, and when they desperately need to get a first down and simply fall down Gurley’s years of scorescorescore training and simple momentum took over and the team scored a touchdown. Even when they make aggressive calls and plow through tough defenses, it backfires spectacularly.
I don’t know that there’s an answer for what ails the Falcons aside from the big transformation to come in the offseason, and even that might not be enough to cure this bizarre football team of their habit of making exactly the wrong decision at exactly the wrong time, no matter who is in charge and who has the ball in their hands. The Falcons don’t look the same as they did in 2019 in a lot of ways and certainly don’t look the same as they did with Dan Quinn at the helm, but in the end they are losing in the same dispiriting way due to the same kinds of cascading series of mishaps and poor luck (you can’t really blame Morris and company for the officiating) that they have for years now. After one bright shining game, it appears we have to expect the dark cloud hanging over this team to persist for at least a while longer.