The Atlanta Falcons had continually done just enough to make you wonder if they were better than you thought they were, even while they were suffering ugly losses and squeaking out last-second wins. That triumph over the Saints one week after New Orleans beat the Buccaneers with Jameis Winston leaving with an injury was a great win, but it was also one that put the Falcons in the 7th seed in the NFC for a moment. Were they good enough to live up to that seeding?
The answer is no. Emphatically no. The Cowboys are one of the NFC’s best teams, but are they so good that the Falcons should have been down 33 points at the half? No. Are they so good the Falcons should lose by 40? No. That’s an embarrassment that reveals a lot about a football team, and we found out that the Falcons being able to gut out a close win against lousy-to-good teams is very different than staying competitive with a really great team. More than any other game this year, the loss to the Cowboys made Atlanta’s limitations as a team clear, and made it evident that their 2021 ceiling is a team that falls short against the best the NFL can offer.
They’re still going to give us good Sundays, but against the likes of the Cowboys and Bills and (maybe, if they get their stuff together) Buccaneers, they’re going to wilt.
I certainly expected a loss, but it was amazing just how poorly the Falcons played in this one. This felt pretty personal for Dan Quinn and maybe Mike McCarthy, who absorbed a couple of tough losses to the Falcons over the years, as they were out there trying for and converting two points up by 30 points. It was incumbent on the Falcons to stop that and they simply couldn’t do it, as they regularly failed on defense and disappointingly wilted on offense. By the time the dust settled, the Falcons had lost by 40 points, thrown three interceptions, and let Dallas run all over them all game long. Matt Ryan was right to say that it’s just one loss in the standings after the game — because that’s all it is — but absorbing that level of on-field abuse had to be depressing for the Falcons and was certainly depressing for the fans.
Now it’s heading home for a tough matchup against a resurgent Patriots team they haven’t beaten in a long, long time. We learn something new about this Falcons team every week, and what I’d like to learn this week is that they’re resilient enough to bounce back from an awful road loss against a contender and triumph against an opponent they’re traditionally struggled against.
On to the full recap, though hell, you can skip it.
- Kyle Pitts was incredibly difficult to cover in the early going, as Aaron Freeman predicted. He reeled in three nice catches in the first quarter alone, and that Dallas defense just didn’t have the horses or the plan to keep him in check. Once the game went completely sideways he didn’t really factor in, but it was a nice stretch.
- Wayne Gallman got an opportunity, and he did enough with his touches despite the awful game circumstances that he ought to at least be active in Week 11. We’re looking for silver linings of any kind right now.
- Grady Jarrett is so good, man. On the second Dallas drive, he had a huge run stop in the backfield, ran upfield on the screen to make a tackle, and was a factor on the third-down pressure that forced a short Dak Prescott incompletion. This is what I mean when I say Jarrett does it all and makes everything else possible; because so often a defensive stop is partly or primarily Jarrett’s doing.
- Richie Grant has had a couple of misadventures on special teams, but when he’s been in on defense, he has made plays. That was the case in this one, as he forced a fumble on a deep Dallas drive in the third quarter that Fabian Moreau scooped up to give Atlanta a chance to restore some dignity. They didn’t take advantage, but still, he ought to have a role on defense.
- It doesn’t qualify as good, per se, but I respect the thought process behind going for it on 4th-and-7 in the first quarter. The Falcons wanted the points and wanted to keep pace with Dallas, and it was on the edge of Younghoe Koo’s field goal range. The fact that it didn’t work opened Arthur Smith up for criticism, but I liked the boldness given that you know Atlanta’s defense is hard-pressed to stop an offense as good as Dallas’s.
- Tampa Bay and New Orleans also lost, so the Falcons lost zero ground in the NFC South. It’s the tiny victories for me.
- It can’t get worse than this, right?
- The passing game had been this team’s strength, but in this one it was just another part of the problem. Matt Ryan had been playing as well as anybody the past few weeks, even with the rest of the team falling apart, but he scuffled in this one and tossed a pair of picks. Josh Rosen then came on and threw another interception. It’s more than a little unfortunate that this team couldn’t score more than three points against a defense led by their former head coach, to put it mildly, but for the moment it probably makes sense to chalk this up as a bad game from just about everybody. It was disappointing to see Ryan and Pitts and Patterson basically stop working so early in this one.
Ryan just can’t repeat this against the Patriots, but obviously he’s going to need his receivers to get open and his offensive line to give him a shot, too. When this offense breaks down, it tends to break down in more than one way.
- The defense couldn’t buy a stop. The Cowboys tried to get favorable matchups against the Falcons secondary and repeatedly did so, with CeeDee Lamb and company winding up lined up against Fabian Moreau and Avery Williams instead of A.J. Terrell. Coupled with numerous quality run plays, that defensive shakiness made it clear why the Cowboys just kept going for it, because they simply didn’t think the Falcons could make a stop and were proven right over and over again. The defense can only make so many strides between now and next offseason, but they’re going to have to make a couple of permanent ones in coverage and in terms of their ability to pressure quarterbacks or we’re going to see more results like these.
- Jalen Mayfield will hopefully come out of his year-long trial by fire as a capable starting guard for many years to come, and he’s had his moments in his rookie season. His pass protection is still very much a work in progress, however, and the Falcons need more from him against capable pass rushes like Dallas or Matt Ryan is going to have no shot, which is exactly what happened on a third down in the second quarter. The Falcons are going to stick with Mayfield and they should at this point, but I’m hopeful things will click a bit more in the second half of the season.
- This Falcons team sort of seemed like it gave up in the early going. Maybe that was the right decision given everything, but yanking Ryan so early and basically turn the ground game over to Wayne Gallman and getting Frank Darby rolling after they barely played him this year indicated they were sort of using the second half as a learning ground. It may have been the right move—I’d love to see Darby get more run in particular—but it did not make any of this easier to watch.
- Virtually all of it. The Falcons faced one of the NFC’s best teams and looked like a very bad team, which tells you everything you need to know about Atlanta’s 2021 ceiling. They’ll pull off some fine wins the rest of the way, but against the truly complete teams on their schedule, they will probably get crushed.
They got crushed on Sunday. They threw interceptions, got stonewalled on the ground, couldn’t stop the Cowboys, and just looked like a lost football team. The hardest part of being a fan is knowing whether you should be crumbling to dust because your team is bad and doomed for the long-term or if you’re just watching one awful effort in an otherwise solid year for a rebuilding team, but even knowing things would get better from here would not make this deeply lopsided loss feel much better. The Falcons simply were bad and the Cowboys took full advantage, and you should be disgusted by it because it was disgusting. We just have to hope that was the worst effort we’ll see from them the rest of the way, but it’s worrying that they’ve been absolutely blown out twice this year.
It’s the viewer at home for putting up with this at all.
The Falcons can (and hopefully will) beat the Saints twice this year and pull off a few surprising wins, but they are not all that good. Hopefully, they will be next year.
The Patriots on Thursday night in what looks like another tough matchup. Check out Pats Pulpit for more.