The Falcons Era of Good Feelings lasted about as long as that carton of leftover Moo Shu shrimp in the back of your fridge.
The defensive transformation that saw this team virtually blank New Orleans and Carolina was as fleeting as the waitress’s smile just before you leave the tip. Sunday the Tampa Bay Bucs became the first opponent to pierce the end zone against the Falcons in 10 quarters, and then for good measure went on drives of 51 and 95 yards in an eight-minute span to seize control of this game with still 26 minutes to play. All behind a quarterback who has more on-field personalities than an entire “Survivor” cast.
The Falcons next play the Saints in four short days on a home field that has been in no way advantageous. Judging by the empty seats Sunday, this team that's 3-8 following the 35-22 loss to the Bucs, may need the mother of all turkey giveaways to get people to Mercedes-Benz Stadium Thursday night. Even if frozen birds can make for angry projectiles.
“Certainly not how we wanted to return home and perform in front of our fans,” coach Dan Quinn said.
Ah, yes, after a two-week hiatus, the fire-everybody conversation will be a staple around local Thanksgiving tables even as the Falcons prepare to play that night. The topic is sure to be less polarizing than talking politics between mouthfuls of cranberry compote, but no less depressing.
The Falcons had fooled us with those temporarily restorative victories over New Orleans and Carolina, for a very short while placing a small Band-Aid on the gaping wound of the 1-7 start. They fooled everybody, for this team was a betting favorite Sunday for the first time in a month and a half. I hear tell that the guy in Vegas who first made the Falcons the favorite in this one is now in charge of hand-washing the thongs of the Thunder from Down Under male review troupe.
The losing was bad, of course. But worse than even than that were the indignities that abounded.
The Falcons came out ready to make a statement, calling for the ball after winning the coin flip. And on their second play, Matt Ryan hit tight end Jaeden Graham for a 53-yard completion. Three incompletions later came one anticlimactic field goal, the statement turned to a whisper.
When, on the next possession, the Bucs Jameis Winston threw the first of his two interceptions — directly into the waiting arms of Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant — the Falcons were set nicely up on their own 47. And came away with zero points.
You may have learned by now this team is not good enough to treat opportunity so cavalierly.
Winston, who may not have invented the turnover but has certainly perfected it, would overcome his tendencies and burn the Falcons for 313 passing yards and three touchdowns. His preferred target was Chris Godwin, who while enjoying various mismatches while running down the middle of the field had seven catches for 184 yards, including a 71-yard scoring play.
Another of Winston’s scoring passes found the 347-pound Vita Vea, the nose tackle deployed as a fullback that no Falcon wanted to cover. Much laughter ensued on the Tampa Bay side of the field.
The final indignity occurred on the last of the six sacks suffered by Ryan this day, when on a late, desperate fourth-down play deep in the Falcons end he was run down from behind and fumbled. Ndamukong Suh recovered and ran six yards for a touchdown.
And, so, the battle for the wet, moldy basement of the NFC South was “won” by the Falcons as the Bucs soared to 4-7. And I refuse to do any math as to whether this loss eliminated them from playoff contention, because that would be an insult to mathematicians dating back to Archimedes.
About the best the Falcons had going for them Sunday was the flinty veneer of toughness in the face of hopelessness.
Wide receiver Julio Jones, announced as questionable to return in the second half with a shoulder ailment, did indeed return and record three catches in the last 30 minutes. "He takes shots week in and week out, people are physical with him," Ryan said. "His willingness to go out there and compete when he's banged up is as good as anybody I've ever been around. Today he was hurting, there's no getting around it."
And there was Ryan himself. The Falcons’ pass rush that had accounted for 11 sacks the preceding two games, vanished Sunday. But the Bucs brought theirs, with the half-dozen sacks and a dozen quarterback hits. Ryan has been nursing a bad ankle, and he’ll break out in more aches this short week but pronounced that he’d be ready for the Saints Thursday.
Why, he was asked? What is there left for him to play for this woebegone season?
Ryan seized the chance to try to rescue something honorable from the ashes: “We’re professionals. Any chance we get to go out there and compete and play the way the game is supposed to be played and the way we are capable of, to me, that’s part of being in this league. Having that professional pride and the mindset to go out there and deliver your best performance week in and week out regardless of what’s going on is the mindset that I have. I go out there to play to win. It’s doesn’t look good for us right now, but at the same time it doesn’t make a difference. When you line up and they blow the whistle, you gotta go, you gotta play to win, and play the way you’re capable of playing regardless of what’s going on.”
What’s going on isn’t pretty. To the one real Falcons question that has emerged this month — what is normal vs. what is aberration — losing has taken the lead once more.