The Falcons came into a home game against Chicago badly needing a win. They also headed into the game with several significant injuries and left with more significant injuries, which figured to make the win more difficult but no less imperative. After four quarters in Atlanta, all the Falcons got was this lousy collapse.
Given the challenges, Atlanta played admirably throughout the first two-plus quarters on Sunday, with a gameplan that resulted in multiple big scores and a defense that held the Bears in check much of the game, even after they put Nick Foles in for Mitch Trubisky. But when they had a lead late and it seemed almost insurmountable for the average team, they blew it again, thanks to a combination of an offense that entirely disappeared and a defense that once again fell to pieces. Teams do not do things like this, as the Falcons became the first team ever to lose two games where they had 15+ point leads. Atlanta makes losing in the worst way imaginable look mundane, even natural.
This all sounds fairly measured, given that what we saw in the waning minutes of Sunday’s game was enraging and incomprehensible. The Falcons convinced more than a few fans to jump off the bandwagon in 2018 because of their maddening losses, and they lost most everyone else in 2019. Yet here they are in 2020, blowing massive leads over and over again, losing in even more frustrating fashion despite being in a “no, we really mean it” playoff year with an expanded format that will allow a 7th team to make the postseason out of the NFC. They’re 0-3 and they let Nick Foles beat them again, which I almost had to laugh about.
The team will lean, however gingerly, on the injury excuse in this one. They’ll point out with justification that this team was missing Takk McKinley, Ricardo Allen, Julio Jones, and others, and that they lost other contributors during the game. They will (and already have) say that execution was an issue and you shouldn’t blame Dan Quinn and that you can only take it one game at a time, that it’s too early to freak out and start shoveling dirt on this team’s tightly-lidded coffin. But all of those assurances belong to a different football team, one finding its way through a 1-2 start or one coming off a particularly bad loss to drop them to 2-1, not an 0-3 football team losing in historic fashion over and over again. Two of the games I expected them to win are already losses, and they’re almost by definition not making the playoffs now. They’ll be lucky to get a whiff of .500 when all is said and done, regardless of the moves they make in the coming days.
I thought the season was done after Week 2—hell, I thought they were going to be a .500 team before the season started—but the team’s ability to get out to large enough leads that you sort of believe they can get it done is striking. After losing in this way to this Bears team, which admirably fought their way back and played with tenacity Atlanta simply lacks, it’s time to admit that even the most remote miracle is a literal impossibility, and the Atlanta Falcons are done in 2020. We’ll be here the rest of the season as always, but the only thing left to get excited about is what might come next for a team that has put off the “what’s next” for far too long.
The 2016 team is dead and gone, and even if there are pieces of the 2020 team that are major contributors on the next great Falcons team, Atlanta’s leadership has to admit that their deeply held hopes and dreams for this coaching staff, this roster, and perhaps this coaching staff will not come to be. That’s a painful realization, but we’re not going to gain anything by drawing it out, and the only reason the Falcons should continue forward with the status quo at this point is if an honest analysis of their options reveals to them that nothing will improve from sending Dan Quinn off on his next adventure.
But as the Bears game showed us yet again, this team can plumb the depths of disappointment in maddening ways that somehow seem worse than the pure feebleness of the 2020 Jets or the bewildering lousiness of the Eagles. No one should be eager to see how long they can keep that up.
On to the recap.
- The Falcons knew they were down quite a few quality starters, so they decided to go for it early. On the very first play of the game for the offense, Matt Ryan faked a handoff to Todd Gurley and threw a nice deep ball right into the waiting hands of Calvin Ridley, who picked up 63 yards. They followed that up with a goal line stuff of Gurley and then a touchdown pass to Hayden Hurst, which gave them an early lead. It was a killer start for a team that needs to be that aggressive often, but they couldn’t replicate it the rest of the way.
- This was the day we were waiting for from the ground game. Todd Gurley and Brian Hill absolutely had their numbers inflated by a handful of big runs, but they combined to go for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries and took advantage of better blocking to hammer through defenders. Hill looked impressive in the early going when Gurley was scuffling, but the team’s prized offseason signing shook off that slow start to be a dominant force later.
- Calvin Ridley had no Julio Jones to soak up attention in this one, and he still absolutely dominated early on. That’s a testament to his talent, and he could’ve had a truly magnificent day if Ryan had connected on a couple of deep shots and the offense had been humming along better later on.
Ridley is one of those pieces of the next great Falcons team, and he’s one of the best players on the current incarnation. During the worst years this team has put up over the past decade, I’ve repeatedly urged fans to enjoy what Julio Jones was doing so you could derive some small joy out of the Falcons. This year, Ridley looks like the must-see receiver.
- Given the tough circumstances they found themselves in, I thought Olamide Zaccheaus and Brandon Powell played fairly well. This team is in trouble without at least one of Russell Gage and Julio Jones in the coming weeks, but both players put together solid days with a lot of playing time.
I would expect to see Laquon Treadwell on the active roster next week, though, if injuries continue to pile up. Nominal fourth receiver Christian Blake played 6 snaps.
- Grady Jarrett is a real life monster. He has been stellar against the run in all three weeks thus far, but he also has quietly been an excellent pass rusher on the interior in Weeks 1 and 3. In this one, he absolutely crushed Trubisky once and collapsed the pocket repeatedly to let others gets pressure. The recognition for Jarrett has been slow to arrive, but he’s easily one of the best defensive tackles in football.
The fact that he left the game late is another sour note in a day full of them, but we’ll hope he’s healthy against Green Bay.
- It’s a small consolation to anyone, given the way passing games have been carving them up, but the run defense has been consistently good-to-great thus far. Steven Means, John Cominsky, Mykal Walker, and others all made nice plays in this one, and the Bears had a few plays snuffed out in the backfield for significant losses.
- Darqueze Dennard had an up-and-down game against Seattle, but he’s settled in nicely since and was a critical piece against Chicago, as he knocked down a third down pass, held on to tight sideline coverage deep, and generally made a nuisance of himself on a day where A.J. Terrell and Kendall Sheffield were out.
Speaking of being a nuisance, Dennard put in maximum effort on a Nick Foles ball to the end zone for Allen Robinson and came away with what the officiating crew called an interception on review. He was a great signing for this Falcons team, and he’ll likely be called upon often in the weeks to come with injuries still a major factor, even if he was hurt and had his foibles along the way. It’s a shame he’ll do that work in what’s likely a lost year.
- Every chance Blidi Wreh-Wilson gets, he plays pretty well. That was the case in this one, too, as he picked off Mitch Trubisky in the third quarter to set up a Falcons field goal attempt that put the Falcons up 16. He’s been playing for the veteran minimum or so for years and is one of the best reserves on the team, full stop.
He, Oliver, and Dennard all had their adventures in this one, with Wreh-Wilson getting beat for the fateful touchdown, but the corners have all been more solid than I think the final stat lines would indicate the last couple of weeks, and particularly this week. I’ll welcome A.J. Terrell and Kendal Sheffield back—so will the Falcons—but I have a hard time pinning these collapse solely or even primarily on poor corner play.
- Matt Ryan was not at his sharpest in this one, though it obviously came without Julio Jones and later without Russell Gage. He missed a handful of deep throws and threw a fatal, deeply unfortunate interception late in the fourth quarter that sealed the game for Chicago, finishing the day having completed just 50% of his passes for 238 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. Recall that the prior two weeks, he combined to complete 67% of his passes for 723 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a pick and you’ll understand why it wasn’t close to his best day.
He’s still a very good quarterback, but this team is getting hurt and falling apart around him and Ryan’s been unable to lift them past that so far. As good as he is and will be the rest of the year, it’s looking increasingly like he’s unable to magic his way out of this team playing poorly in every other phase, something he unquestionably has done in the past. Days like this one against Chicago, with a readily identifiable list of off throws, will just lead to more losses. He’ll likely bounce back in a big way against a so-so Packers defense, but if the blocking isn’t sharp and he doesn’t have all his weapons, things could be bumpy again.
- It’ll take another watch and some scrutiny to figure out the biggest culprits, but the offensive line unquestionably struggled more than it did the first two weeks. Ryan was only sacked twice, but the Bears prioritized stopping the pass over stopping the run, and as a result they were able to apply quite a bit of pressure. It was a tough matchup and the run blocking definitely was improved in this one—again, likely partly due to a Chicago defense that didn’t sell out to stop it—but they’ll have to bounce back against Green Bay, too.
- The Mitch Trubisky scramble was a throwback awful play. The Falcons let Trubisky get loose, but then they also let him scramble for miles downfield and even failed to tackle him, something you hadn’t seen them do in a little while. The end result was a 45 yard run that led to an easy touchdown for Chicago.
The fact that Nick Foles relieved him, threw a pick and generally looked prerty mediocre but still threw three touchdown passes and rallied the Bears to a win is such an indictment of the job the defense was doing late.
- I don’t know what happens to this team, but every week it seems that there’s a point at which the switch flips and Atlanta loses whatever got them out into the lead or within striking distance. This week, they went six straight drives without scoring, with a missed field goal and interception making up two of those and punts on the other four. While that was happening, Chicago climbed all the way out of a 26-10 hole to win the game.
The Falcons have had very different players on the field in the past two games, thanks to injury, and have seen much the same results. They haven’t been able to get a pass rush later in the game and the offense, so good in the early going, has become inept late. Koetter’s called 3/4ths of a good game at least twice now, but in this one the team aired it out late and saw two short, unproductive drives happen right as Chicago was rallying, which helped give the Bears the time for their comeback. Given that the Falcons averaged 6 yards per carry on the ground in this one and were having an easier time blocking for Gurley and Hill than Matt Ryan throughout much of the game, the lack of any rushing attempts when the team needed to shave time off the clock to smother a Bears comeback attempt looks like another inexcusable forced error for Koetter, who appears to have the same advanced lead-blowing disease as the rest of the team.
The utter lack of resiliency and ability to hold what should be safe leads is an indictment of the entire team, but it’s especially an indictment of a coaching staff that cannot figure out a way to score one more touchdown or hold on against one more Nick Foles or Dak prescott drive. That, more than anything else, is why the Falcons have to make changes to the coaching staff and see whether players respond to that change.
- Younghoe Koo missed his second extra point of the season. That combined with his nearly shanking a couple last week now have me a little concerned about that aspect of his game, and the missed 48 yard field goal in the 4th quarter only added to my anxiety about his fortunes. It’s not his fault the Falcons blew a massive lead, but they lost by four points and Koo missed out on four points, so he can’t escape all blame either.
The mitigating factor here, as was the case for so many aspects of this game, is that Koo was evidently dealing with an injury. That’s why Sterling Hofrichter took over kickoffs and it likely explains the misses, too. He’ll need to be healthy against Green Bay.
- Injury really hurt this team coming in, and it didn’t stop once they got going. Russell Gage exited the game with what we all assume is a concussion, and that came in the secnod quarter with the team needing to move the ball. Keanu Neal exited with a potential hamstring injury shortly before halftime, as well, and the Falcons were down several starters.
Injuries are generally the last excuse NFL teams or their fans want to utilize, however, and it was up to Atlanta to figure out a way around those ailments.
The Bears are one thing, but the Falcons are going to have to get a lot healthier against the Packers if they’re going to have a shot at winning. That’s just reality, and even then they don’t seem to have a great shot.
Back to not awarding one, because I don’t think any Falcon who got our $5 plastic trophy would feel good about it right now.
The Falcons are dead in the water. The injury picture won’t be so unpleasant in the weeks ahead, but a team that does this over the first three weeks of the season isn’t going to magically hit on a way forward that erases this.