Out of all the ways the Falcons could’ve lost their game against the Kansas City Chiefs, a defensive slugfest that could’ve gone to overtime if not for a missed Younghoe Koo was probably the least likely. Yet that’s exactly what happened, as the Falcons defense smothered Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs all day long, the offense sputtered and puttered and managed to stay in it, and the man having one of the great kicker seasons in franchise history just whiffed.
The fact that it was weird and unexpected but still a loss just made it seem more apropos for the Falcons, who have made close losses an art form in 2020. This matchup figured to be one of the worst for Atlanta but turned into a tense battle thanks to the heroics of the D, which held the Chiefs under 22 points for the first time all season, as my colleague Evan Birchfield pointed out. If Atlanta’s offense had been the Atlanta offense of yore they might’ve cruised to a win, but the Chiefs defense was capable and Dirk Koetter’s crummy play calling, a couple of missed opportunities for Matt Ryan, and a lot of pass protection issues conspired to hold the Falcons to just two touchdowns on the day. Kansas City got away with one against a Falcons team that has become very good at spoiling or nearly spoiling the home field advantage of some great playoff-bound teams in recent years.
For the Falcons themselves, I imagine this was a crushing loss given that they nearly had the Chiefs on the ropes. For Falcons fans who were expecting a loss, are gearing up for next year, and just wanted to see some compelling football, this was a pleasantly strong effort, one that reminds us that this defense in particular is not a barren wasteland but a talented group in need of bolstering, not something that needs to be torn apart and re-configured if the next regime doesn’t want to go that route. The offense has plenty of talent too—you only needed to see Calvin Ridley buzzsaw the Chiefs defense to know that—but there are big picture questions and a desperate need for coaching staff changes on that side of the ball. Either way, nearly knocking off a 13-1 Kansas City team is an impressive effort and something that should give players on this team and Raheem Morris a boost, regardless of whether they’re staying in Atlanta or headed elsewhere.
That’s a small consolation right now, with a 4-11 record and things hurtling toward a final road game against the Buccaneers, but the Falcons have a date with a top 10 draft pick and have managed to play like a quality football team for surprisingly long stretches of the season. That leaves me feeling more optimistic and more at peace with this loss than I have in a while, even if my grudge against Koetter is reaching extremely toxic levels.
On to the full recap.
- Sure, he jumped offsides early on, but Grady Jarrett remains the best defender on this team. His ability to get in and impact Patrick Mahomes was a welcome sight for the Falcons, and he also dropped Le’Veon Bell in the backfield for a tackle for loss early. Jarrett is the building block for this defense, and the one the next defensive coordinator for the Falcons is going to be most excited to get his hands on.
- Matt Ryan got beat up in this one and had one bad sideline throw to Calvin Ridley (an incompletion) and one ugly straight up duck that Todd Gurley saved. Aside from that, he was sharp, fighting through a ton of pressure to deliver sharp passes throughout the day and keep Atlanta in it despite some woeful play calling (more on that later). After hitting rock bottom against the Chargers a couple of weeks ago, Ryan has put up close to 700 yards and 5 touchdowns with no interceptions over the past two weeks. There are always plays to quibble with—Ryan was never perfect and is less so now—but he’s kept the Falcons in these past two games despite a lot of shakiness around him.
- Calvin Ridley occasionally waffles on a play and loses yards or commits a penalty, but the reason you don’t complain about those infrequent headaches is because he is so, so good most of the time. In this one, Ridley caught an absolute bullet from Ryan and evaded defenders all the way down the field, ending up with a 54 yard reception that set up a score shortly thereafter. He would follow that up with several crucial catches and finished the day with 26 yards per reception, a bonkers day for a terrific player.
He’s every bit a #1 receiver in this league, and a good one at that. I can’t wait to see what he does down the line for what I really hope are better teams.
- Ito Smith is the odds-on favorite to go into 2021 as the team’s second back (behind a likely draft back), and he’s going to deserve that role. As the featured runner in this offense against the Chiefs, he took advantage of holes, was able to swiftly change direction to identify and explode through holes that opened up, and just generally looked like a capable and assured back throughout this game.
- If Ito deserves a lead back role, Hill deserves a role with someone. Hill was as productive as he has been in weeks, consistently making something out of nothing as a runner and reeling in several Matt Ryan passes to put up over 50 yards on the day. He’s a capable player who needs the work, and on a day where the Falcons didn’t block well for Ryan but did block well on the ground, he got the help.
- Hayden Hurst has returned to life the past couple of weeks, putting up 5 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in this one and earning a helpful pass interference call on the Chiefs defense in addition. I look forward to seeing what the next offensive coordinator can do with Hurst, who will finish 2020 with the same number or more touchdowns as Austin Hooper had in his breakout 2019 campaign, but with fewer yards and receptions.
- Foye Oluokun made the absolute play of the game in this one, picking off Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter and running it back to midfield before fumbling out of bounds. It was a heroic effort by a player having a career year, and it’s not his fault the Falcons offense blew the golden opportunity to score that he gave them with a heads-up play and a terrific return.
- Jacob Tuioti-Mariner continues to outperform his expectations. In this one, he forced a throwaway by Mahomes and got his hands in front of another Mahomes pass that was ultimately completed. You don’t necessarily expect him to put up consistently great plays on 40 snaps per game, but as a part-time player he’s tremendous and should be back in 2021.
Heck, the whole Falcons pass rush was pretty good Sunday despite not registering a sack, putting Mahomes back on his heels often and forcing him to check down more often then the Chiefs would’ve liked.
- Keanu Neal picked a pass on a 4th down trick play, potentially saving a huge play in the process, though field position would’ve been much better had he knocked it down. It may not have been the most heads up play but it was a damn impressive one. It was also his first interception since 2017 and
- A.J. Terrell nearly had an interception that would’ve made some Falcons fans hate him and others worship him, as he simply dominated Tyreek Hill on a fourth quarter end zone route and had the ball in his hands. It was still a great play.
- Overall, the defense was borderline dominant on a day where you would’ve expected them to fold, especially after they scuffled against the Chargers and Buccaneers in back-to-back weeks. That kind of performance deserves enormous praise even if it’s too little, too late for the season.
- Tyler Hall has been a nice addition to special teams, and he had one of my favorite plays in this one. On the Falcons’ late first quarter punt, he flew down the field, noted that there was no call for a fair catch, and dropped the returner for a few more yards, ensuring the Chiefs started from the 5 yard line.
- The defense was incredibly impressive, honestly. The Falcons ended up allowing 7 points with 30 seconds left in the half, but they largely kept the Chiefs in check, got pressure on Patrick Mahomes, and played tight coverage. They almost held the Chiefs to their first scoreless first half since 2016, which tells you that this defense is not as beyond hope as some of us (in both cynicism and a sense of self-preservation) believe. With just 10 points allowed in the second half despite ample opportunities for the Chiefs to make adjustments, it was probably their single most impressive effort of the entire year, and a real feather in the cap of Raheem Morris, Jeff Ulbrich, the rest of the defensive coaching staff, and the players. Morris is going to get a ton of credit for turning one of the worst defenses in the league around, and honestly he should.
- The defense actually clamped down and stopped early Chiefs drives. All that hard work was rewarded with an offense that put up zero points on their first four drives, all of them ending in punts due to wasted plays and errors of execution. I’m beyond ready to see what someone else can do with this unit, because Atlanta repeatedly wasted fine opportunities on unproductive plays that included a max protect call that featured just two receiving options, neither of whom was Calvin Ridley.
That’s why this offense has been as unproductive as it has been in years, with brief explosions like the game against the Vikings and to a lesser extent the Buccaneers and Younghoe Koo’s historic season obscuring how few points these Falcons typically score. An offense with this much talent simply shouldn’t score under 20 points six times in a season, but the Falcons have done so, and the Chiefs defense is not so good that it should’ve been the result yesterday.
- The Falcons had two timeouts and 30 seconds in the first half, but their trust in this offense is so low they just knelt out the half. That’s the kind of thing that simply can’t happen, but again, does happen over and over again because of injury, a couple of holes, and one Dirkoboot Koetter.
- Matt Ryan continues to absorb abuse for plays he cannot make. When the Falcons are running a max protect play and neither receiving option is open, Ryan has no realistic prayer of making it out of the pocket and throwing it away, and even when they aren’t Dirk Koetter’s by-now legendary struggles as an offensive coordinator gave him little time and little hope of finding an open man.
Ryan is not beyond reproach—a couple of missed throws early kept them from moving downfield and he’s taken ill-advised sacks in other games—but there’s a reason this offense looks so much worse under Koetter than it did under Kyle Shanahan or Steve Sarkisian, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with Ryan.
- The pass protection was pretty rough in this one for long stretches. Rookie Matt Hennessy had his hands full with Chris Jones and it showed, as Ryan was sacked four times and harried frequently throughout the game. The offensive line has been maddening all year with inconsistency, but in this one with Matt Gono at left guard and Hennessy making his first start at center, it was also understandable.
- Technically, Younghoe Koo missing a very makeable field goal belongs in this column, and it dents his historic season (it’s only his second miss) and ensured the Falcons lost this game. It is a concerning miss given the pressure and range, but also I never expected the Falcons in this one and Koo never misses and the Falcons got to play a tremendous game against Kansas City and still hold on to a top five draft pick.
What I’m trying to say is that while this isn’t going to feel good for Koo, he’s the team’s kicker of the present and future, and if you’re gonna miss one that’s probably the one to miss. He’s absolutely turned in one of the finest seasons in franchise history and be getting a very deserved new contract very soon.
- That Raheem Morris challenge on A.J. Terrell’s dropped interception made no sense unless you were trying to make a rookie cornerback feel like you had his back. Hey, worth it if it helps Terrell dominate in the future, I guess. For all the good things Morris has done for this team—and there have been a lot—his situational decision-making has not proven to be a major improvement on Dan Quinn’s.
Hand this one to the defense, which very nearly clamped down hard enough to beat the Chiefs. What an effort.
I know we won’t all agree on this, but while the Falcons are clearly not a good team right now, they are also not bad in the same way that some of the other teams picking in the top ten are, and are not beyond hope for 2021 with wise hires, drafting, and signings.
A Bucs team still hoping to lock up the #5 seed, which means they likely won’t sit their starters. We’ll see how that goes.