This is a tough one to swallow. The Falcons played well in some key areas, but a few untimely lapses cost them a favorable outcome on the road in inclement weather conditions. Atlanta lost to the Washington Commanders 19-13 on Sunday, dropping to 5-7 on the season.
It’s a loss that dealt a blow to Atlanta’s playoff hopes, but perhaps not a mortal one based on Tampa Bay’s loss to Cleveland, which means the Falcons keep pace in the NFC South.
There are some positives and negatives to take away from Sunday’s game, but time is starting to run out with one game remaining until the bye week.
A tipped pass that denied what could have been
It’s often said that NFL outcomes can be ultimately traced to three or four plays. Well, if the same holds true of entire seasons, we may have witnessed one Sunday. A drive that seemed destined for the end zone ended in gut-wrenching fashion after a tipped pass.
Following a rare poor decision on a zone read by Marcus Mariota, the Falcons called a pass play on second down from the 4-yard line. Finding his man over the middle, Mariota let loose a quick pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage and snatched at the last moment by Washington corner Kendall Fuller.
The interception ended an Atlanta drive that had lasted nine plays and covered 77 yards since beginning with 5:03 remaining in the game. It was a masterful use of the clock, as the Commanders would have had less than one minute to respond if Atlanta had taken the lead. Instead, that drive took the air out of any possible last-gasp answer after the turnover.
A win would have pushed the Falcons back to .500 on the season with a 6-6 record. They would have been square in the mix for an NFC wild-card spot and in great position for the NFC South title. Instead, at 5-7, they still have their work cut out for them and will potentially need some help. The margin for error grows smaller after that tipped pass.
Atlanta’s run game has proven more than enough
The Falcons have been tested time and again this season against formidable run defenses and stout defensive lines. They’ve largely passed each test with flying colors, averaging 159.4 yards on the ground, the third-most in the NFL. Yet much of the conversation in the leadup to Sunday was how Atlanta’s offense would fare against a daunting Commanders defense that ranked sixth against the run, allowing 103.1 yards per game.
By the end of the first half, Atlanta had already run for a crisp 100 yards. On the Falcons’ touchdown drive in the second quarter, the offensive line bullied a defensive line that is largely viewed as the identity of Washington’s team.
Atlanta ended Sunday’s outing with 167 yards on the ground, 2 more than it had through the air. Against one of the elite defensive fronts, the Falcons blew open holes. At every turn the Falcons’ offensive line has shown that are among the elite run-blocking units in the league. It’s time to start asking how defenses can match up with them.
The Commanders can run the ball too
This wasn’t as nearly as ugly a game as it could have been, and that was partially due to the proficiency of both offenses. When they needed to go all-terrain in a downpour, things didn’t bog down, they shifted into the correct gear. Behind the complementary tandem of Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson, the Commanders moved the ball very effectively on the ground.
It was Robinson, a third-round pick out of Alabama, who led the way for Washington. He carried the ball 18 times for 105 yards while also catching two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown. Gibson, who has been playing well of late, had a smaller role in this one but still finished with nine carries for 32 yards and caught three passes for 22 yards.
All told, the Commanders gashed the Falcons for 176 yards on the ground. This group has done well to prevent individual success throughout the season, but Robinson was not to be denied in the muddy weather.
Mykal Walker continues a nice trend for the defense
It’s easy to overlook this stat, but the Falcons are among the better teams this season at creating interceptions. Entering Sunday’s game, Atlanta was tied for eighth in the league with nine picks through 11 games. Mykal Walker picked off a pass in the closing seconds of the first half to give Atlanta the chance at a long field goal that ultimately fell short.
Walker has continued a trend of young defenders stepping up with timely interceptions. Third-year safety Jaylinn Hawkins had an interception that all but sealed that game against Chicago, and second-year safety Richie Grant had a game-winning pick in Seattle. Dee Alford and Isaiah Oliver have also had some key interceptions this year.
A.J. Terrell nearly came away with his first interception of the season on a beautiful break against a comeback route by Terry McLaurin, but it was ruled that he did not have full possession of the ball.
Atlanta’s tackling woes creep in on a decisive drive
Washington led the NFL in time of possession entering Sunday’s game, and they demonstrated why in the second half. Playing solid complementary football, the Commanders possessed the ball for 10:44 in the third quarter and then took 5:55 off the clock to start the fourth quarter on a drive that spanned the quarter change. On the field for the vast majority of the second half, the Falcons’ defense began to show signs of fatigue.
Brian Robinson is having a breakout performance. Running so physically on a bunch of different gap scheme runs. Been fun to watch pic.twitter.com/Bn9ySTdQvv— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 27, 2022
Most notably that impacted Atlanta’s tackling. The Falcons have not been a great tackling unit this season, ranking 20th in PFF’s tackling grade through 11 weeks, and they struggled mightily to prevent extra yardage early in the fourth. Moving the ball in chunks on the ground, Washington tore through the Falcons’ interior and covered 58 yards to set up a field goal and take a 19-13 lead.