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Falcons - Bills next day recap: A close first half, an expected second half

Atlanta lost, as expected, but they delivered drama and some terrific plays nonetheless.

Atlanta Falcons v Buffalo Bills Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

The Falcons were massive underdogs in this game for a reason, and they ultimately lost by two touchowns. They still did an admirable job of hanging in throughout, but especially in the first half.

The Falcons actually led at halftime despite being down 14-2 at one point, which is a surprising sort of thing when you’re on the road in the snow. The fact that they were in it at any point is a testament to the team’s resilience, while the margin of victory tells the tale of how far this team has to go.

Atlanta’s limitations are evident. They struggled to cover Buffalo’s receivers with Fabian Moreau out and just because those are good receivers, struggled to keep Josh Allen and Devin Singletary in check on the ground, and offensively they smashed into the limitations of their offensive line. The team also opted not to try for risky but defensible scoring tries a couple of times that might have put this one within reach late. Despite that, they were up 15-14 at the half and were a questionable call away from finishing this one down just a single score. If that sounds like “this was a moral victory” nonsense, so be it, but the Falcons have shown us all season that the NFL’s best teams can run over them pretty freely. Going on the road and putting forth a game effort against a very good team in the snow is something different, especially when the team was short-handed thanks to COVID-19.

We’re one game away from the end of the 2021 season, and the story has been written for Atlanta. Beating the Saints would make us happy and rob them of a playoff berth, but won’t change the magnitude of the offseason changes ahead. They are a team that needs significant offseason work by coaches an players, as well as personnel additions to overcome the shortcomings they’ve shown s all throughout the year. The fact that they have grown to the point where they can at least hang with one of the AFC’s best teams in unfavorable circumstances should not convince this front office that there are only minor tweaks ahead, but it should tell them that there’s fight in this team that improvements will turn from valiant struggles to wins against good teams. The only question is whether we’re one year away or two from this team having it together—and of course whether the timeline of the plan will be successful in the first place—but that’s all ahead.

For now, I’ll choose not to get depressed about a loss to a very good football team, and I hope you will too. The question ahead is whether you believe the Falcons can build on this or whether we’re stuck spinning the tires, and that will be settled only in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on the effort we just watched and enjoy the turnovers most of all.

On to the full wrapup.

The Good

  • Avery Williams has been a major asset on special teams in 2021, but he delivered his biggest play of the year early in this one. His jarring hit on Buffalo’s returner knocked the ball loose, and while the Bills fell on it, they did so in the end zone and Atlanta had a safety to grab an early lead.
  • Matt Ryan was harried and sacked all game, and while he certainly had a couple of underthrows early on that were deeply frustrating, he put forth a game effort that included a couple of long an productive drives, as well as a scramble for a touchdown and a taunt. I know that touchdown was ultimately called back, but I think that’s garbage and I very much enjoyed it, so we’re going to consider it canon.
  • I thought Mike Davis had a strong day. The line did a nice job blocking for him and he took full advantage, putting up a tidy 5.2 yards per carry on eight totes and managing a touchdown, and he’ll likely figure into the running back rotation next year regardless of who the Falcons add. Hopefully they’ll bolster the line to give him a better shot at success next year.
  • Kyle Pitts is ridiculous. Matt Ryan threw a decent ball that was a bit behind him, but Pitts reeled it in and then rolled a huge number of yards after the catch despite multiple defenders trying to take shots at him. In those moments where he does something truly spectacular, you can glimpse the kind of dominant, Hall of Fame-caliber player he is capable of being and may become, and that gives me a lot of hope for the future. I hope he’s not hurt to the extent that we won’t see him in the season finale.
  • Parker Hesse is kind of a fun player. The Falcons don’t have a single tight end under contract next year beyond Kyle Pitts, but Hesse can catch a little and blocks well, and that should be enough to bring him back.
  • A.J. Terrell has delivered the kind of season we haven’t seen in Atlanta in many, many years, despite the team having several good cornerbacks over the past two decades. He added to in on Sunday, recovering from some early shakiness and a brutal penalty to pick Josh Allen late in the second quarter and picking up a sack along the way. With three interceptions and some truly dominant games, Terrell looks like he’s ready to settle in as a dominant cornerback, and we have to thank him for developing into that kind of player and Thomas Dimitroff for drafting him.
  • Foye Oluokun took full advantage of a Mykal Walker tipped pass to snag his second interception in three weeks, and he continues to be the kind of playmaker this defense should take pains to keep.
  • Duron Harmon with the huge deflection in the end zone to save a touchdown in the first quarter was a great play. Picking off a pass in the end zone in the second quarter that was tipped is another great play, and this may have been Harmon’s best day of the entire year. Certainly he rose to the occasion in the snow, where he played more than once in New England.
  • Overall, the defense delivered a better-than-expected day thanks largely to turnovers. There’s no question that Josh Allen missed some throws due to weather, but this could have been a massive blowout and the turnovers and occasional big plays ensured that didn’t happen. I still have a brief note in the next section, though, because it still wasn’t exactly a lockdown effort.

The Ugly

  • Ryan hasn’t thrown an interception in a month, which is great. He has had a couple of costly fumbles in that span, however, and in this one the strip sack from Gregory Rousseau was a very costly play indeed. There’s blame to go around on the play—Ryan got a little bit of time but also had a rusher catch him entirely unawares as receivers struggled to get open—but it was the kind of play that the Falcons couldn’t afford Sunday.
  • The offensive line didn’t help the effort again today. Too many pass plays have been utterly doomed this season because Ryan is taking contact within a second of the snap, and that continued into this game. Ryan held on to the ball too long a couple of times and got some deserved heat for a pair of underthrows to Kyle Pitts and especially Russell Gage early, but he was also sacked five times and pressured throughout this game yet again, frequently delivering in spite of that. I don’t know how much faith this team can afford to put in their current group when things go so badly on a weekly basis, but we’ll find out soon enough.

At least they blocked well for Mike Davis for a change!

  • This depleted defense against the Bills offense felt like a wild mismatch, and it was at times. I was actually impressed at how many times the Falcons were able to make a play to force Josh Allen to throw it away or tip a pass that otherwise would’ve been a touchdown, but there’s only so much hay you can make in a barren field. Devin Singletary and Allen running wherever they wanted all day was mighty discouraging, given how evident it was that Allen in particular was going to be running a lot.
  • I’m not sure I agree that the sideline-catch-that-wasn’t was a catch, as the officiating crew ruled on review, but I’m also not sure it would have done more than delay the inevitable. I very much know I don’t agree with the decision to say Matt Ryan was short of the end zone and hit him with a taunting call, a sequence that cost the Falcons a score.

I also don’t think they should have called roughing the passer on a very weak hit on Matt Ryan, but that’s almost never called correctly. NFL officiating is a problem spot that just doesn’t seem likely to get better, and while the Falcons were probably destined to lose this one, it’s disappointing that the crew missed as many calls as they did. I’m sure Bills fans have the same complaints even in a win, which really underscores how much work the league has to do with its officiating. Again.

  • In a game where you’re in big trouble because of the talent deficit and a field goal down 14-2 does not bring you within one score, I’m not sure why Arthur Smith would decide to settle for three, as he did in the second quarter. If it’s a signal of how little confidence you have in your offense, well, it’s going to be a busy offseason.

The punt instead of a 49 field goal attempt was in a similar vein, but with wind and weather, I do better understand why Smith didn’t call on Koo. In a game that was always going to be difficult for the Falcons to win, not taking the points when there are opportunities to do so still rankles, but I’m not sure it would’ve changed the outcome.

  • The season’s effectively over. If you were still pushing for that faint playoff dream, you’ve got to be disappointed today, but you can console yourself with the specter of a second win over the Saints.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It’s difficult to pick an MVP on a day where so many players contributed and yet the Falcons still fell short, so we’ll pass.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are still not good enough, in their current incarnation, to beat the NFL’s best teams. They also are making enough progress to show life in those games, and whether that’s something that’s a fun note to end the 2021 season on or a sign of what’s to come is something we unfortunately can’t know now.

Next Week

It’s Saints hate week, again. The Falcons will try to go 2-0 against New Orleans and end this season on a high note, and man, I hope they can. Check out Canal Street Chronicles for more.

Final Word