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Falcons vs. Chargers recap: A rocky loss ensures a losing season

The Falcons move to 4-9 and show the depths of their failure all over again.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have had their chances. The number of games they’ve lost this season in maddening, last-second fashion would be sufficient to have them near the top of the NFC if you flipped the outcomes. Especially after the firing of Dan Quinn, the defense has repeatedly kept them in games and waited in vain for the offense to get them a win.

Atlanta has instead lost. They’ve lost in a number of horrific, embarrassing ways this year, but it seems fitting that perhaps their most horrific and embarrassing was against a Chargers team notorious for losing that way too. Through mismanagement, through execution errors, and through simple incompetence, Los Angeles tried again and again to give this football game to Atlanta. The Falcons are simply the bigger losers and showed it again on Sunday.

A 17-10 lead transformed into a 20-17 loss. A team that had every opportunity to make my prediction of a shootout come true proved to be so bad at taking advantage of opportunities and so bad at getting Los Angeles off the field that this ended up being a dreadful slugfest between two teams that didn’t even play that well on defense, but took advantage of a few massive mistakes. It’s the Chargers who get the small, one week comfort of winning this, while the Falcons face the truly awesome scope of their failure with no “well, there’s still a chance” left to cling to.

They are eliminated from the playoffs. Raheem Morris and company will be looking for new jobs next year. Franchise cornerstones like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are now under a microscope for poor play and injury woes. Free agent acquisitions like Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler Jr. have flamed out and may find themselves elsewhere next year. The Falcons have swept away even the few good vibes we had post-Dan Quinn’s firing and now have turned even fans who just were hoping to enjoy some solid football before the end of a miserable 2020 year into misery sponges. The Falcons stink, full stop, and their brief reprieve from that stench only makes its return more pungent.

There are three games left but I don’t expect the Falcons to pull any rabbits out of the hat, not after proving incapable of pushing past the Saints and Chargers despite ample opportunities to do so. Atlanta won’t suddenly switch over to playing young players and won’t suddenly start playing well, so with the playoffs officially a dream for another year and the team giving us so little to celebrate each week, we’re just watching to see how it ends. All the truly important work lies ahead, and as much as I hate not having a single thing to look forward to while Atlanta’s still playing games, here we are.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Russell Gage had one of those rare magnificent plays in this current version of the Falcons offense, taking the snap as the Wildcat quarterback and throwing an absolute dime to Calvin Ridley in the end zone for Atlanta’s first touchdown of the day. That’s actually Gage’s second touchdown-worthy throw of the year, as Julio Jones dropped the first weeks ago, and it’s clear he has utility beyond just being the third receiver in this offense. Considering he also had 5 catches for 82 yards on the day, he’s doing just fine in that role, too.

It will be up to the next offensive coordinator to figure out more creative ways to use him, but between his effective blocking, solid work as a receiver and ability to throw the football, Gage shouldn’t struggle to find a role.

  • Ridley, meanwhile, hit 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in this one, posting 95 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. He’s not quite Julio Jones at his peak and may never be, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that Ridley is one of the best receivers in football and one of the few players the Falcons can count on to have a big game week-in and week-out for this oft-struggling offense. We’re very lucky to have him.
  • Laquon Treadwell has had a difficult year in many ways, as he didn’t make the Falcons roster out of camp, hit the reserve/COVID-19 list, and had gotten no run for Atlanta after he did join the active roster last week. In this one he finally got his opportunity and made the most of it, snagging a Ryan pass in between two defenders, powering through contact, and scoring a touchdown on his first grab of the year. Good for him.
  • Ito Smith is far and away the most productive runner in this offense and needs to continue to operate as an option of first resort when Dirk Koetter wants to run the football. He once again picked up more touches than Todd Gurley (12 to 8) and outgained him 45 yards to 31 yards. Considering he’s the only semi-proven back under contract next year, that production is encouraging.
  • A.J. Terrell is a rookie and is going to have moments, but I’ve been struck by the gap between his play and his reputation in some corners of this fanbase. The reality is that Terrell has tough matchups weekly, and he was close to Keenan Allen throughout the first half despite the veteran receiver’s strong effort. Terrell started the second half by hitting a Chargers receiver so hard he knocked a pass loose and he tackled well all game, showing good coverage instincts even if it didn’t always mean incomplete passes. He’s a good one and he’s going to get better.

He also had double digit tackles, meaning he was cleaning up mistakes others made all day long. That plus some good coverage late in the game will earn you some applause from me.

  • Tyeler Davison had a quiet 2020 until the last couple of weeks, when the run-stopping acumen that got the Falcons to sign him in the first place showed up in force again. He made multiple quality run stops in this one, critical plays for a defense that did not have much luck against Austin Ekeler otherwise.
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson doesn’t get a ton of playing time when everyone’s healthy, but man does he have a knack for a huge play when it’s necessary. Once again, BWW made a tremendous play to pick off Justin Herbert with less than a minute to go as the Chargers were driving toward a potential game-winning field goal. He should be a Falcon for life
  • Younghoe Koo hit his opportunities without an issue. If everyone did that, we’d all be happier, but instead the Falcons repeatedly wasted scoring chances of any type with Matt Ryan interceptions.

The Ugly

  • The Falcons struggled a bit on the ground against the Saints, and the Chargers appear to have noticed that. In this one, the first drive was a masterclass by Anthony Lynn and company featuring a ton of productive Austin Ekeler runs and some quick, short passes. That ground game continued to hurt them until very late in the game,
  • Matt Ryan took deep shots repeatedly in this one, and none of them really worked out. That was just a “okay, that’s a chance you take” until the third quarter, when he threw into double coverage for Calvin Ridley and it proved to be a gimme interception for the Chargers, who would turn that into a costly scoring drive. Then he threw another pick that gave the Chargers a chance to win the game, and then after Blidi Wreh-Wilson picked off Justin Herbert, he threw another interception to give Los Angeles one more chance to win the game. After a productive start to 2020, his play has fallen off a cliff, with those games he’s missing Julio Jones proving to be particularly deadly.

As good as Ryan is and can be—and heck, as good as he was in the first half against Los Angeles—he has been prone to taking shots that are ill-advised and paying for them in 2020, and that plus a few throws that are just a bit behind can put a team in a bad spot in a close game. That’s a habit he’ll have to get out of as he continues to age, or he’ll cease to be an effective player no matter who his offensive coordinator winds up being. It does not diminish the career he has had to this point to note that this year has been full of worrying signs that may or may not be due to his offensive coordinator, but the next regime is going to have to figure out a way to ensure he’s put in a position to succeed.

  • This team’s two biggest free agent acquisitions were Dante Fowler Jr. and Todd Gurley. On Sunday, this team got one tackle and one near sack out of Fowler and 31 yards on 8 touches out of Gurley. As good as this team’s recent draft classes look, at least on balance, their free agent signings have been frequently aggravating. I fully expect Gurley to be elsewhere in 2021, but figuring out what to do with Fowler is going to be a significant job for the next front office.
  • Chargers special teams came into the game as one of the league’s shakiest units, so of course they had a big play against Atlanta. A huge return in the second quarter took Los Angeles from a long drive to a very short one, and while the offense couldn’t really capitalize, it did allow them to tie things up with a field goal. Multiple players appeared to have gotten sloppy on the play to allow the return to happen, but it was spectacularly ill-timed for a coverage unit that had done a good job this year.
  • The Chargers are one of the few teams in the NFL with worse situational awareness than the Falcons. Their decision to run for a first down with 20 seconds on the clock in the first half and no timeouts was catastrophic, as they weren’t able to get the field goal unit on the field fast enough to actually attempt the field goal. That made it 17-10 Falcons, not that it mattered in the end.
  • The Falcons had a play in the fourth quarter where they were attempting play action on third down and players tripped over one another, leaving Matt Ryan flustered and throwing into the dirt to pick up an intentional grounding penalty. The best play call on third down and short for this team is a play that goes a little bit sideways and ends in Atlanta losing yards. I think you know who that reflects poorly on.
  • Ryan will be the goat this week for obvious reasons, but it’s maddening how many ways this team fails. The defense held the Chargers to just 20 points but also repeatedly allowed Justin Herbert to complete screen passes with hands in his face. The ground game was rarely productive and the play calling too often uninspired. The team did not give Younghoe Koo a chance to win them the game because they were busily throwing it away, and the most noteworthy special teams play of the game was a huge failure.

It has been time to blow this thing up, but the thoroughness of this loss is a good reminder that only a handful of players on this team are guaranteed anything in the year to come.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It’s Calvin Ridley for accounting for more than a third of the team’s yardage and points against the Chargers, with an honorable mention to Russell Gage for a great game and terrific touchdown pass.

One Takeaway

The Chargers are not the biggest choke artists in the NFL in 2020. The Falcons are.

Next Week

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are undoubtedly itching to leave some shaky games behind and play this fading Falcons team twice down the stretch. Visit Bucs Nation for more.

Final Word