Technically, the Falcons still have to play three more games, but they have arrived at the abyss a little ahead of schedule. With a 20-17 loss to the Chargers where they failed to score a single second half point, failed to take advantage of a mighty predictable Los Angeles gameplan, and endured some of the most boneheaded throws of Matt Ryan’s long and mostly successful career, Atlanta’s hit the lowest point of the season even if they lose the next three games against the excellent Chiefs and playoff-bound Buccaneers.
This colossal, clunky failure happened to coincide with the team being officially eliminated from the playoffs, which felt like the cosmic justice their unspeakably terrible second half effort deserved.
With their loss today, the Falcons have officially been eliminated from the playoffs.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 14, 2020
It's the 3rd straight season they will miss the postseason. pic.twitter.com/jrsZwmqUpa
The Chargers have made such a habit of awful, last second losses that I genuinely thought they might do it again. That belief grew after the first half, when Atlanta went in with the lead because Anthony Lynn and company managed to mangle their clock management so badly that they missed out on a field goal opportunity. Instead, they outscored Atlanta 10-0 in the second half, with Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s timely interception going to waste because the Chargers were aggressive defensively and Matt Ryan simply didn’t throw enough good balls. You can blame this loss on a defense that struggled just enough to keep Los Angeles in it or even a special teams unit that gave the Chargers a gimme return, but it’s very obviously an offense that was once again moribund and mistake-prone that sunk this team.
That kind of offensive ineptitude will probably not cost Dirk Koetter a chance at another offensive coordinator job down the line, but the tendrils of it will smother this Falcons team in the weeks and months ahead. Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich have coaxed genuine improvement out of this defense, even on a somewhat shaky day against the Chargers, and their rewarded is a 4-4 record that will probably preclude either from returning to Atlanta in 2021. Matt Ryan now will face an offseason of questions from fans and (much more importantly) the next regime about whether he’s capable of playing at a high level well into the future, and whether this mediocre year for him hangs more on Dirk Koetter’s failures or his own skills degrading. And the Falcons will have to consider that this offense is simply not great and requires a bit of an overhaul to support a quality offensive line, Calvin Ridley, and whatever combination of Julio Jones and Russell Gage the team chooses to move forward with. That’s a grim note but Atlanta has spent the past four-plus weeks looking like the feckless offense they put together in 2007, not the supposed borderline juggernaut their raft of former first round picks suggested heading into 2020.
The failure against a team like the Chargers, who have talent but made a host of cartoonish mistakes in this one, ensures there are no further depths to plumb. Atlanta can finish 7-9 or 4-12, but they’ll have to confront the fact that they have not been a good football team in at least three seasons and will have to overhaul both the coaching staff and front office before setting their sights on a roster that has not proven capable of getting the job done. Atlanta flew awfully close to the sun in 2016, but they’ve long since stopped burning or even smoldering. It’ll be up to a very different football team to figure out whether there’s even a small phoenix to be coaxed out of the pile of ashes this current team has left behind.