Destroyed. Wrecked. Pummeled. If you have a world that conjures up destruction and lopsided outcomes, you could use it to describe what happened to the Falcons Sunday then they traveled to face the Bears.
For the Atlanta Falcons, the gulf between the story the team tells about themselves and the product on the field has been wide in a way that makes that story unbelievable. Against the Bears on the road, the Falcons opened up a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the story—the scrappy team that hangs around late, the team a play or two away, the team that has the answers for quality offenses and can grind teams to dust via their ground game—and the reality of a shaky, inconsistent squad that now has wrapped up its sixth straight losing season. All the great promise of the season and all the bright moments have collapsed under the weight of inconsistency and ineptitude.
Obviously a win against the Saints next week and a Buccaneers loss will propel them to the postseason at 8-9, but it’s hard to be particularly excited about that still-remote possibility. What does matter is that the Falcons had a prime opportunity to prove last week against the Colts was not the fluke but the standard they were capable of, something they’ve regularly failed to show in their up-and-down season, and they couldn’t come close to doing so. They were brutal on offense, where they turned the ball over four times and could barely pass the ball. They were terrible on defense, where coverage lapses and an inability to bring down Justin Fields conspired to deliver an alarming performance. And they were pretty bad on special teams, where a nearly heroic Dee Alford missed field goal return couldn’t erase a forgettable punting day and a pair of missed Younghoe Koo field goals. It was an abysmal, rock bottom sort of effort for Atlanta, and they’ve had way too many of those in 2023. The only difference here is that it came after the best game of the season and hey, it was snowing.
There’s very little left to say about this incarnation of the Falcons that isn’t bitter and frustrated, and given that it’s a New Year and there’s only a single game left, there isn’t much more to say. The lack of success this year has overshadowed the roster building work that has been done and may bear fruit for next year, and while I badly want to beat the Saints because beating the Saints is always a must, the reality is that the only thing that matters is how the Falcons build on their strengths, wipe away their massive weaknesses, and how they find a way to do that either with or without Arthur Smith. This team should not have been this lousy—should not have been capable of losing this game this badly after the way the season has unfolded—and they can’t risk being this lousy yet again in 2024. For our sake, at the very least.
On to the full recap.
- Bijan Robinson’s vision and patience are something to behold. Repeatedly in this one, Robinson made the one cut or hesitated just long enough to get to an open lane and pick up additional yardage. He had 15 carries for 75 yards on the day against a very good run defense, and it’s hard not to daydream about how good he might be in a less dysfunctional offense in 2024.
- As frustrating as Taylor Heinicke was through the air—see below—he made plays with his legs despite his ankle injury. Escaping pressure for first downs and positive yardage was one thing, but his fourth quarter touchdown run where he stepped up into the pocket and eluded defenders was a thing of beauty and brought the Falcons within 10 points. He and Ridder are both more consistent runners than passers, which is depressing but does have its benefits.
- The 75 yard screen pass touchdown for Tyler Allgeier was an absolute thing of beauty. Heinicke found Allgeier, who ran like a bat out of hell and was aided by tremendous blocking on his way down the field en route to the score. It was the longest play of the season for Atlanta, and yet another example of a well-designed, well-executed, well-blocked play bearing fruit for the Falcons. If only there were more of those.
- Kaden Elliss is still rolling. In this one, he blew into the backfield unblocked for an easy sack against Justin Fields on a big third down, and then later chased Fields into throwing it away with a relentless effort.
- Even on a lackluster day from the pass rush overall—and it was—the Falcons picked up three sacks. Lorenzo Carter was active and disruptive on the day and picked up one all to himself, while David Onyemata and Bud Dupree split another.
- It was a rough game for the secondary, but Mike Hughes making a big play in the end zone on a third down ball to Tyler Scott was a play that was above reproach. Hughes stuck with him and did enough to save a touchdown, and for a player who has had more downs than ups in 2023, it was a nice and very welcome grace note.
- Dee Alford almost housed a return on the missed field goal to end the first half, but he ran out of gas a little bit late and was tripped up. It was still a terrific effort by Alford, who went 96 yards for the longest field goal return in NFL history that was not a touchdown. Alford also had nice coverage on Moore in the end zone late in the game, and it’s still hard for me to figure out why he hasn’t been playing much on defense.
- If you’re a fan of Falcons-Saints games having stakes, this one will. With New Orleans embarrassing the Buccaneers, Atlanta can win Sunday and make the playoffs if the Buccaneers somehow lose to the Panthers. What a weird, stupid season this has been, but the Falcons are still somehow alive. I’m not even sure that belongs under the good, but if you’re looking for some sort of silver lining after yesterday, there it is.
- Taylor Heinicke has his moments, but there weren’t enough of them in this one to make up for all the misfires and mistakes. He missed in the end zone to Kyle Pitts and Van Jefferson—I saw the fan questions about their effort on those balls, but they weren’t on-target—and missed an open Kyle Pitts over the middle on one play and blundered into a sack on the next. Late in the second quarter on a crucial third down as the Falcons tried to get points before the half, he chucked an interception to the Bears to give Chicago one more chance to score. Then in the third quarter, he threw a risky ball that was intercepted by a leaping Tyrique Stevenson, and finished things off with a 4th and 17 interception in the fourth quarter on Atlanta’s last gasp effort, with a final line of just 163 yards and 10 completions on 29 attempts. His bad decisions didn’t catch up with him against the Colts; against the Bears, we saw why Heinicke is certainly not a long-term answer for the Falcons.
- Of course, neither is Desmond Ridder. He stepped in for an injured Heinicke and threw an interception of his own, albeit on a tipped ball. I’m genuinely not sure which quarterback we’ll see against the Saints next Sunday, but whoever it is, they’re unfortunately pretty likely to throw a handful of balls that will just piss you off.
- Heinicke was not aided by a small handful of close calls and drops, none worse than the one he put right into KhaDarel Hodge’s hands and saw dropped. When the quarterback has only a handful of really good moments and one of them results in a drop, it’s just not your day.
- Third downs have historically been Atlanta’s Achilles heel, but they have made real strides in that regard in 2023. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate over to the game against Chicago, where Justin Fields was able to drive effectively down the field and score thanks to a pair of big plays on third downs. On the first, Fields found an uncovered Roschon Johnson for a short pass that turned into a huge gain, and on the second, he threw a dart to D.J. Moore in the back of the end zone despite solid coverage from Jessie Bates. The Bears went 6/16 on the day, which is far from stellar, but the ones they converted tended to be equal parts improbable and frustrating.
- All the familiar weaknesses were on display for this defense. D.J. Moore cooked Jessie Bates and A.J. Terrell, the Falcons were only occasionally able to keep Justin Fields from tucking and running to great effect, and coverage lapses against tight ends (in particular Robert Tonyan) doomed them. That’s how this team found themselves down 14-0 early in the second quarter, and it’s how they allowed that lead to go back to 21-7. It was one of the worst first half efforts we’ve seen from the defense all year, in fact, with the team losing the battle up front in the trenches against Chicago’s stable of backs, allowing players to get wide open, and generally scuffling. The fact that it came in yet another do-or-die game was pretty disappointing.
- The inability to keep Moore in check was perhaps the day’s most frustrating subplot. When he was making quality catches against tight coverage, aided by Justin Fields throwing lasers, it was at least understandable. When he was wide open and had room to rumble after reeling in his catches, it was far more confusing, as the team’s inability to keep him under control was the surest way to doom them and it still happened.
- While the run defense in general was rough, with Khalil Herbert averaging nearly seven yards per carry, the worst moments were the near sacks on Justin Fields that turned into long first down scrambles. Multiple times, the Falcons had Fields dead to rights (including twice on a single play!) and let him slip away, with nobody within shouting distance as he cruised to big yardage. Fields is that good as a runner, but to have your arms around him and let him get away for those kinds of gains still hurts a lot.
- Even allowing for all those interceptions, this was one of the worst defensive efforts of the year, and the most points the Falcons have allowed in a single season. Every level of the defense struggled at some point on Sunday, and coming on the heels of a complete shutdown of the Colts, it was a bitterly disappointing effort.
- Younghoe Koo’s season is taking a roller coaster turn. After missing two tries against the Buccaneers, Koo hit all five of his attempts last week against the Colts. Against the Bears in the snow and wind, he missed his first two attempts, with a 50 yarder falling well short and a 42 yarder bonking off the upright. As good as Koo is and has been, he’s certainly missing more kicks than is typical this year, and the fact that he scuffled in questionable weather is an ominous sign for him should the Falcons ever get back to playing meaningful playoff football in January.
- If you’re Arthur Blank and you’re bringing back Smith no matter what, just come out and say it and remove the suspense. If you can still be moved by what happens at the end of the season, this game should really make you re-consider the idea of keeping him. The Falcons looked overmatched, bamboozled (see the third down confusion from receivers and the fourth down timeout to save themselves near the goal line and the weird third quarter challenge where Smith challenged the first down and not the spot), and not good enough. You can’t be terrific one week and abysmal the next and expect anyone to take you seriously, yet that has been Atlanta’s modus operandi for the entire Smith era. I genuinely do not think this team has shown enough to justify bringing Smith back; if they do, they’d better have one hell of a plan for bolstering the coaching staff and improving the quarterback room to ensure that he’s more successful in 2024.
If last week it was only appropriate to give it to the whole team, this week it’s only appropriate to not award it.
Inconsistency has been the theme of this Falcons season, and the last two weeks have taken that to the extreme. This team is simply too inconsistent to be good.
The season finale, on the road against the Saints. You gotta beat the Saints.