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Falcons get reality check in dispiriting loss to Panthers

Despite some good recent vibes, Atlanta is still finding itself.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

If the bloodied hand of Matt Ryan wasn’t enough to tell you it just wasn’t the Atlanta Falcons’ day, perhaps everything that followed would’ve done the trick.

In a day where the Falcons got tough news about its top receiver, the team’s brief win streak snapped like a loose twig. The team got sent crashing back down to Earth, to the reality that this isn’t a football team that’s going to be in the winning margin right now.

Disappointment is expected, but don’t be too upset. October might’ve had too much fool’s gold for these Falcons. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a further reminder that Arthur Smith’s team is still trying to figure itself out and has a limited roster.

The team got manhandled up front both ways, which we knew was always possible with the youth on this offensive line and the dearth of talent on the defensive line. Losing Calvin Ridley for an undetermined time table is brutal—though he deserves full empathy and support—and rookie tight end phenom Kyle Pitts needs time to get adjusted to being the focal point of an offense and an opposing defense. Ryan has been sensational as of late, but had a bit of a down day without Ridley to take attention and an offensive line that was playing well.

It’s not like they got brutalized; losing 19-13 at home to a team that lost four-straight stinkers a good deal, but it’s not like this Falcons team was a Super Bowl contender. This was very much still a work-in-progress, and growing pains can be ugly. It’s entirely possible the Falcons look much better on the road at New Orleans next week just like it’s entirely possible for them to look less than stellar. That’s just the nature of the team right now. Trying to expect them to break off on a run is a dicey proposition; they’re just not talented enough to string together a long run of great play right now cohesively.

Since the loss at Tampa Bay, the team’s schedule has been a cupcake platter: Giants, Football Team, Jets, Dolphins. Going 3-1 in that stretch, none of those wins overtly dominant, should clue us in to where this team actually is. Wins can be deceiving, and while you never scoff at a win, you have to look at how you win. The team won each of those games by the skin of their teeth, and they were wins against teams who look to hold top-10 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. It was always a little much to think that was indicative of an immediate turnaround that would translate into January football.

For all that, don’t get too bummed out. The Falcons are progressing nicely under first-year coach Smith, and the team is flashing some substantial play that it can build on in the future. Eyes should stay ahead right now, though. For every mind-blowing Pitts highlight, he’ll struggle a bit against extra defensive attention. For every promising defensive play, they’ll get gashed by a backup. For every creative Smith play call, there will be one you question.

The Falcons are headed in the right direction. There’s still no shame in finding yourself when you’re in the first year of a new regime. Trying to still expect too much out of one of the weakest defensive rosters won’t get the Falcons anywhere just like demanding perfection from Smith’s offense. The Falcons have done some good things this year, and they’re by no means a bottom-5 team in the NFL like they were last year.

It’s just a game of distance. The team is still well behind the best of the NFL, but they don’t need to be there right now. Success is best sustained, and if the Falcons don’t have the world’s best 2021 and build into a much, much better 2022, you won’t find me complaining.

For now, they’ll surprise and frustrate in equal measure. It’s going to be a bumpy ride to the final week of the season, and you really just can’t tell which version of the new Falcons is going to show up every week. Just don’t give up hope in a team that’s showing you the kind of growth it needs to be more in the future. It’s just the now might not be quite as fun.