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Falcons - Lions next day recap: Last minute heroics seal a seventh win

Atlanta couldn’t make it easy, but they could make it happen.

Detroit Lions v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Falcons didn’t figure to blow an increasingly tough Lions team out of the water, especially not at home. In typical Falcons fashion, they took what still felt like a likely win and turned it into a nearly three hour journey through every corner of our emotions, capping off a too-close-for-comfort Lions drive down four with a huge play by Foye Oluokun to seal the victory. It was a roller coaster ride, but as has been the case with every Falcons win this season, it had its share of fun moments and an ending we could all get used to seeing.

Nothing about this season has been easy for Atlanta, and they didn’t suddenly make it simple on Sunday. The Lions kept tripping over their own feet with penalties and missed opportunities, but they made up for it with inexplicably sharp passing from Tim Boyle, a solid-enough ground game, and a couple of key defensive stops. That plus a willingness to go for it on fourth down repeatedly and an utter contempt for the Falcons defense kept them in it until the very end, when Boyle’s luck ran out and he threw an ugly pass right at Oluokun, who is too good and too smart to let an opportunity like that pass him by. The fact that the Falcons kept it so, so close made for a stressful Sunday, but I’ll take added stress for a victory.

This team is certainly resilient, as they keep winning games that I would’ve chalked up as sure losses a year or two ago, especially when it came down to a potential game-winning drive from the dreaded backup quarterback. That’s an achievement in its own right—the past few years you could tell when the Falcons were doomed and it was often in situations just like this, playing a so-so team with a backup quarterback in—even if it’s also evidence of the considerable work needed to ensure the Falcons of the future can win these games without needing last minute heroics. They have an offseason to work on getting closer to that lofty goal, and I’m hopeful they’ll make significant progress toward becoming the kind of team that won't have too many one score games where the outcome is in doubt until the very end. Given that those games can hinge on whether a play like Oluokun's interception happens or not, and given the significant year-to-year variance in close game performances, building on the foundation of gritty wins and putting teams away decisively will be the next big step for this team. It's one that I think they can take as soon as next year with the right offseason.

Right now, though, the Falcons are at seven wins with all their evident limitations and still have a shot at a winning season with two weeks to go, something we haven’t been able to say about them in a long time. Having just snagged their first home win of the season, they now are lining up for a chance to knock off a surging Bills team and get their first win against a team over .500 as well. That's a tough ask, but we haven't had the opportunity to think about a winning season this late in the year in way too long.

Let’s break it down a bit.

The Good

  • There were probably a couple of plays Matt Ryan would like back from Sunday, but not many. This was a crisp effort from #2, one that saw him routinely hooking up with Kyle Pitts, Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus en route to a tidy 215 yards and a touchdown. Given that the team didn’t have a ton of success on the ground against Detroit, they badly needed a sharp effort from Ryan and got one.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson ‘s touchdown run in the second quarter gave the Falcons the lead and was another example of how effective he can be in a variety of situations, as the team kicked him outside near the goal line and he simply outran defenders en route to the score. That’s 11 touchdowns on the year for Patterson, who remains a revelation and the team’s beast signing of the offseason.
  • Kyle Pitts had one of his best games of the season, managing 102 yards on just six catches and showing both the sure hands and unreal speed that are going to make him one of the NFL’s most spectacular receiving options for years to come. As an added bonus, Pitts broke Jeremy Shockey’s post-merger record for receiving yards by a tight end and surpassed Tony Gonzalez’s single season franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end, as well. He’s already special, but it won’t be long before he’s considered one of the NFL’s greats at this rate.
  • Hayden Hurst becoming the kind of red zone threat his speed and size suggested he could be has been fun. as he’s now grabbed two touchdowns in the last three weeks. I don’t know if he’ll be back in 2022—my guess is no—but if he continues to grab two passes every week and make one of them a much-needed touchdown I’ll enjoy every game he’s in Atlanta.
  • Olamide Zaccheaus has had his ups-and-downs this season, but back-to-back first down catch and run plays in the second quarter shows you how useful he can be to the offense. Those were his only two grabs of the day, but they were nicely done and well-timed.
  • There wasn’t a ton to write home about for the defense, which put forth an overall solid effort against a Lions team that had just scored 30 against the Cardinals but also suffered a raft of frustrating lapses. I’d give real kudos to Richie Grant, who made some nice tackles, as well as Fabian Moreau, who delivered at least one critical stop on third down. The D is a work in progress, as we’re all well aware, but even against Tim Boyle and Jamaal Williams, holding a team to 16 points is enough to get you a welcome win.
  • The play of the game and the defender of the game honors both belonged to Foye Oluokun, though. Boyle’s throw near him was ill-advised in the extreme, but quarterbacks make those passes all the time without paying for it the way they should. To his credit, Oluokun made the interception happen and sealed the win with it, and he did so after turning in a good effort against the run in particular in this one. An impending free agent in 2022, I have to think Oluokun winds up being one of this team’s biggest offseason priorities.
  • Younghoe Koo is under pressure to hit a 52 yard kick before the half to tie the game up? He doesn’t feel that pressure and hits it effortlessly, because he’s Younghoe Koo. Both of his kicks Sunday were critical and he took care of them tidily, and he’s been one of this team’s few true consistent bright spots over the past two seasons.
  • Avery Williams continues to look like a very capable returner. On a punt late in the first quarter, he juked a lunging Lions defender and ended up picking up 13 yards and getting the Falcons nearly to midfield.
  • Another week, another couple of big punts for Thomas Morstead. I love reliability from my favorite team’s specialists, and I’d endorse the Falcons making an effort to bring Koo and Morstead back next year.
  • A home win? We literally waited all year for this!

The Ugly

  • The pass protection was immediately awful, as Matt Ryan was sacked three times on the team’s first drive. Ryan was on the run a long time on the first one and probably should’ve tucked it or thrown it away, but the next two he basically had no chance of making anything happen. After that horrendous start things settled down enough for a functional passing game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, at least.

The line has still morphed from a problem into the problem for the Falcons, which is why I’ll be very interested to see how the team chooses to address it. At least this effort wasn’t wire-to-wire ugly.

  • Russell Gage has been the hero for this offense for a few weeks now, so the fact that he missed one heater right at his hands and had the ball stripped away shouldn’t be used to wave away the run he has been on. The problem was that the fumble could have been catastrophic, given that it was so late in the game and gave Detroit a short field.

He still finished the game with a solid day, reeling in four grabs for 39 yards, but nobody’s going to feel great after turning the ball over.

  • The defensive effort on the first drive was borderline hilarious minus a terrific tackle by Deion Jones and a pair of nice plays by Fabian Moreau, which thankfully helped keep the Lions out of the end zone. This team’s biggest issues for years have been getting off the field on third down and missing tackles, and this defense struggled with both of those on Sunday. Oh, and they got their lunch eaten on a 4th and 6, too.
  • Tim Boyle carving up this defense and throwing a touchdown pass late in the second quarter hurt, a lot. Dean Pees has repeatedly said he doesn’t care about allowing yards and just wants to keep defenses from scoring points, but Atlanta’s inability to stop the short strikes and make the tackles necessary to prevent gains after the catch have meant plenty of points for opposing offenses this year. I’m bullish on that improving in Year 2 with experience and additions to the roster, at least.
  • Those ugly stretches were worth calling out, I think, but the biggest note from the whole game for the defense is the same note we’ve had for years: The pass rush just didn’t get the job done, giving Boyle the time to have a solid day. That’s in spite of a few plays where the team did get close, and it’s in spite of Dante Fowler’s killer effort to help force Boyle’s decisive final throw. Everybody is trying, but the pass rush being something less than consistently impactful is not changing until the offseason, obviously.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It’s Foye Oluokun. The Falcons needed a big play to stop the Lions from sealing the deal on their potentially game-winning drive, and he provided it. He played well on Sunday, but that was the biggest play of the game and it deserves some shine.

One Takeaway

Let’s make this takeaway about takeaways. This Falcons defense is far from a finished product, but they have done one thing really well: Come up with a timely turnover.

This is sort of a crazy statistic, and the Falcons are 6-5 in this stretch. My one takeaway is that the Falcons should keep getting takeaways.

Next Week

Bring on the Buffalo Bills. The Falcons will have to go play in Buffalo in January, which feels like a recipe for a rough game, but we’ll see if the Falcons can deliver an upset. Check out Buffalo Rumblings for more on what Buffalo’s up to.

Final Word