Falcons go to the desert and discover a new excruciating way to lose
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Falcons kicker Matt Bryant reacts after missing an extra point late in the fourth quarter that would've tied the game against the Cardinals Oct. 13, 2019, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals defeated the Falcons 34-33.
When a season is determined to fall apart, the many ways to lose will just find a team. There is no hiding. And a lifetime spent well and truly kicking a ball between the uprights will buy you no favor when it’s time to pick the next fall guy.
Which brings us to the Matt-Bryant-misses-an-extra-flippin-point part of this Falcons nightmare. His wasn't the only misstep in Sunday's 34-33 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, only the latest and the most easily scapegoated.
After once more falling into the habit of digging their own grave, trailing by as many as 17 points early in the third quarter, the Falcons were ready to pull themselves even after a touchdown catch and scamper by Devonta Freeman with under two minutes to play. But then Bryant and his 44-year-old leg misfired left on the extra point, leaving the 1-5 Falcons to sample a new flavor of despondency.
These last handful of days have been one continual fault-finding mission in Georgia.
Memo to whichever universal power is in charge of sports: Enough already, the themes of loss and culpability have been exhausted in and around Atlanta. Can we just invoke the mercy rule and call an end to this blame game?
The veteran Bryant, let go and then reclaimed this season when the Falcons could find no one as dependable, is, in the post-game words of his coach, “as clutch as it comes.”
“There isn’t anybody I’d rather have in that moment. Nobody,” Dan Quinn emphasized.
“At the end of the day nobody cares (that the Falcons fought back). The only thing that matters is how the game ends,” Bryant said. “I’ve gotten a lot of support, but it doesn’t take away from the feelings of being depended on to do my job and coming up short.
“It’s disappointing for us to fight back the way we fought back and to not finish it off.”
The Falcons have tried everything to break the cycle of losing. And now, even a week in the desert seemed to do them little good.
This is a restorative place, they say. But nothing — not the dry climate, not the drastic change of scenery, not even the kind of bonding that men can only do in the comfort of the concierge lounge — could fix one chronically blighted team and its suspect defense.
The Cardinals, who until Sunday had won just as seldom as the Falcons, put up points on their first five possessions on the way to this victory. They struck again at the end, set up by a suspect punt interference call, on one last touchdown drive of just 45 yards with 5:12 left. And then ran out the clock, after a third-down scramble by quarterback Kyler Murray was judged just enough by replay microbiologists for a first down. No breaks for this team or this endangered coach seem forthcoming.
The Falcons had come to Arizona straight from giving up 53 points in Houston, determined to spend the time leading up to a game with the equally moribund Cardinals to focus on fixing this defense. The fruits of the get-away were not immediately obvious.
These Falcons, though, did come to State Farm Stadium, the great grey mushroom cap in the desert, feeling aggressive and a little experimental. Winning the pregame coin flip, they decided to get the ball to their offense immediately rather than deferring to the second half, as is tradition. They meant to put their best foot forward from the jump, while keeping its defense out of the way.
It worked splendidly, the visitors establishing themselves with an 80-yard touchdown drive, Matt Ryan completing all five of his passes, Devonta Freeman rushing for as many yards or more in that one possession (28) than in the whole of three of his games this season. Finally, some solid footing for a struggling team.
The flip side to that decision is that the Cardinals got the ball to start the second half — which they used to drive 64 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 20-yard catch and run by Maxx Williams to build their largest lead, 27-10.
There is no hiding a defense for long. Sooner or later, it must come out and play.
As the Cardinals were scoring early and often Sunday, they were just continuing the trend set a week ago in Houston. Dating back to that game, opponents were on a streak of scoring on 13 of 14 possessions. For those facing the Falcons, carrying a punter on the roster was becoming highly optional.
Maybe you remember the Falcons proud Grits Blitz defense of the late 1970s. What to call this bunch? The Cream of Wheat Retreat defense?
But, then, the oddest thing happened. The Falcons D held once, then twice, then a third time. That allowed their offense — which Sunday served reminder of the force for good that it can be — to go to work. Given the chance, it erased the 17-point deficit.
Ryan was splendid, completing 30 of 36 for 356 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions.
Freeman was running hard and with a purpose again, putting up 88 yards on 19 carries. He added two receiving touchdowns.
Julio Jones and tight end Austin Hooper had eight catches each, both eclipsing 100 yards.
These were the elements of what could have been a comeback that at least put lipstick on the Falcons flaws for another week. With just under two minutes to play, with the whole world rolling left, Freeman broke out all alone to his right and pulled in the catch and ran for the touchdown that was supposed to send this day to the uncertainty of overtime. Who knows if the Falcons could have kept Arizona from scoring in regulation or what they would have made of overtime? We never will know.
For Bryant whipped the kick just to the left of an upright. He tore off his helmet and grabbed his head like a man stuck by a sudden and violent migraine.
And in this season of such determined losing, any fan who cared did the same.