The final day of 2023 featured a lot of the same issues that plagued the Falcons all year long, and the result was a 37-17 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Atlanta’s first offensive possession looked promising, but things quickly cooled off for the visiting team on the type of cold, windy day that makes road games in Chicago so formidable. Stalled drives, defensive lapses and turnovers once again doomed the Falcons, who have now lost three of their last four games.
Despite that slide, the Falcons are still alive for the playoffs thanks in part to their most hated rivals. New Orleans knocked off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, setting up a Week 18 showdown for the division title. If the Bucs win next week against the Panthers, they will clinch the NFC South. If Tampa Bay drops another one, the winner of Atlanta-New Orleans advances to the playoffs.
The Falcons sure don’t look like a playoff team at this point, though.
Here are some of the main takeaways from Sunday’s loss:
Atlanta needs a QB it can trust
This has less to do with anything Taylor Heinicke did, although he didn’t exactly light it up, and more to do with the Falcons’ offensive philosophy. There was a moment early in the third quarter when the Falcons missed a chance within striking distance of the end zone. On a review of the play, either Jason McCourty or Ross Tucker—the two analysts for the game—correctly noted that Heinicke had either Mack Hollins or Kyle Pitts open for a potential touchdown.
Instead of throwing to either Hollins or Pitts, Heinicke caught the snap and quickly fired a pass low to the right flat, in the direction of Jonnu Smith. The broadcast speculated that Heinicke was instructed to get rid of the ball quickly and to make protecting the ball the priority.
The Falcons have tried managing the quarterback position, and it hasn’t worked. They need a player they can trust, through the good and bad. When Arthur Smith did appear to open up the playbook a little bit in Week 6, the turnovers increased as well. Atlanta’s offense has felt tight a lot this season, and that can be attributed to quarterback, but it could also be the result of the way the staff has treated the QB position. Anyone who’s been in a car with a back-seat driver knows the ride isn’t typically comfortable.
Coaches often say that they’d prefer an aggressive player they have to reign in. The Falcons need a quarterback they trust enough to let loose.
A potential glimpse at the future?
It’s no secret that conversations are happening about Bears quarterback Justin Fields in Atlanta. Whether those conversations are happening in Flowery Branch, however, remains to be seen. Given the questions at quarterback, they should be. Nevertheless, All parties received a first-hand look at Fields on Sunday, and he did not disappoint.
Fields looked very sharp to open the game, and his running ability gave the Bears a nice numbers advantage because of the attention the Falcons dedicated to the quarterback. Perhaps his best moment came on a pinpoint throw to D.J. Moore in the back-left corner of the end zone. The pass just beat the outstretched arm of Jessie Bates for the Bears’ first touchdown of the game.
He had several Houdini-like escapes from the pocket, tantalizing fans with his elusiveness and undoubtedly bringing about flashbacks to No. 7. Fields looked confident and in command of the Bears’ offense all afternoon, which has been missing in Atlanta. He finished the game 20-of-32 for 268 yards and a passing touchdown while also contributing 45 yards and a rushing touchdown on 11 carries.
Right now, the biggest question might be whether the Bears actually want to move on from Fields after this type of performance at the end of the year. If they do, it’s tough to rule out the Falcons having a level of interest.
Younghoe Koo goes cold in the snow
The reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week couldn’t keep his hot streak going in the frozen conditions on Sunday. He missed his first field goal attempt of the game, a 50-yarder that fell short. His second attempt from 42 yards out was firmly within Koo’s range, but the wind pushed the ball into the left upright.
Those two misses stalled any potential momentum for Atlanta, which allowed Chicago to march down the field on its first two drives for consecutive touchdowns. Koo has been so good for so long—and the Falcons’ kicking has been good for so long—that it’s easy for fans to forget what it’s like for a kicker to miss a makeable opportunity. That sting can be ice cold.
Tyler Allgeier is still an excellent player
Allgeier hasn’t been getting the volume that he did as a rookie, but it took only one play for the second-year back to remind everyone why he grabbed the lead role last season. On the first offensive play after Chicago took a 14-0 lead, Allgeier quieted the crowd with a true highlight moment. He slipped out of the backfield, faked a block and pivoted at the perfect time to secure the screen pass and take off the remaining 75 yards for a touchdown.
TYLER ALLGEIER ALL THE WAY!!— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 31, 2023
CBS | NFL+ pic.twitter.com/Ec8t0YUYMs
The part of the play that really stands out is Allgeier’s patience in setting up the block to get the defender to fully bite. Chris Lindstrom and Scotty Miller also deserve a lot of credit for their role as lead blockers to create a lane for Allgeier. There has been a frustrating lack of explosive touchdowns for the Falcons this season, but this was a nice home-run ball.
Dee Alford aaaaaalmost got there
The Falcons almost created one of the highlights of the NFL season at the close of the first half. After the defense put together a much-needed stand, the Bears were content to attempt a long field goal before halftime. Knowing the distance and the weather conditions, Atlanta sent Alford back to field any short kicks.
Cairo Santos’s kick was indeed short of the uprights, and Alford fielded the ball before sprinting out of the end zone. He initially started right before an attempted tackle helped him swing around the left sideline. Once he found space, Alford had a line of Falcons blockers to help set up an alley. The return lasted for what felt like an eternity, and it ended just short of the goal line; the Chicago 13-yard line, to be exact.
That play would have been a huge swing of momentum for the Falcons heading into the half. Instead, it amounted to a riveting bit of entertainment and nothing else.