Falcons bumble, stumble and fumble away NFC South title

New Orleans linebacker Manti Te’o  reacts as the goal line defense stops Falcons running back Devonta Freeman just short of the endzone on a fourth down attempt during the fourth quarter. The Falcons lost to the Saints 23-13 and need a win next week to secure a playoff berth.
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New Orleans linebacker Manti Te’o  reacts as the goal line defense stops Falcons running back Devonta Freeman just short of the endzone on a fourth down attempt during the fourth quarter. The Falcons lost to the Saints 23-13 and need a win next week to secure a playoff berth.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

There’s usually a point when it all catches up to you. A team can only drop so many passes, miss so many blocks, commit so many turnovers and blow so man red zone possessions and still win, before the inevitable happens: The elevator doors and they realize too late that there’s no elevator there.

That point arrived for the Falcons’ Sunday.

In they stepped. Down they went.

They committed 10 penalties, including, illogically, implausibly, six on the offense on the first three possessions. They whiffed on their first three trips into the red zone: a fumble from the one, field goal and then stopped on fourth-and-goal from the one (after Julio Jones had been ruled down following a catch just outside the goal line). They committed two turnovers that amounted to a 14-point swing. They went 2-for-13 on third down. They had some questionable play-calling.

They once again didn’t look like anything resembling a playoff team, let alone a team that went into Sunday with first place potentially on the line.

So at least one thing was settled with a game left in this regular season. The 23-13 loss to New Orleans – a late touchdown provided meaningless window dressing -- obliterated any lingering visions of another NFC South Division title that might’ve still been dancing in the Falcons’ heads on Christmas Eve. Their reign is over. After one season.

The only question now is whether the Falcons (9-6) will hold onto a playoff berth, heading into next week’s finale against Carolina at Mercedes Benz Stadium. It’s between them and Seattle for the NFC’s sixth seed in the playoffs. If the Falcons defeat the Panthers, they’re in. If they lose, duck. A combination of the Falcons’ loss and a Seahawks win over Arizona sends the Seattle to the playoffs and the Falcons to offseason oblivion.

“Penalties. Play-calling. Turnovers. The fumble by me. Injuries. All that stuff happens,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “We can’t look at none of that and say, ‘This was the reason we lost.’ We just have to win at the end of the day.”

Yeah. But does it matter?

First place in the NFC South was potentially on the line and the Falcons looked the third-grader who didn’t realize until it was too late that somebody tied their shoelaces to the chair legs.

Forget the comparisons to last season. Just measure performance vs. talent and it's not equitable. The Falcons have won nine games but they barely escaped in least four of those (ChicagoDetroitSeattle and New Orleans) and have fumbled and bumbled around for the better part of this season.

What indication is there that this team suddenly is going to change, as if being run through a car wash and coming out the other end looking like a Super Bowl team?

Freeman is on the wrong kind of roll. He had three fumbles in the previous two games (none lost) and lost a big one against the Saints. This might have been the worst game of his career. He lost a fumble on the New Orleans two-yard line. He committed two personal foul penalties. He was smacked for a loss on fourth and goal from the one (though much of that blame should go on an illogical play-call by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who had Freeman lined up six yards deep with no lead blocker).

“You just have to man up,” Freeman said, who fumbled two plays after Deion Jones’ interception early in the third quarter seemingly gave the team new life. “I know I fumbled. I shouldn’t have fumbled. I know that. I know I can do better with holding the ball.”

The Falcons need to do better in a  lot of areas. But it starts with offense. Not only is it not in 2016 form, it’s too often not even coordinated.

It made for a fun party in New Orleans. The Saints’ organization launched a few verbal jabs in the Falcons’ direction during a “Us vs. Them” video highlight sitcom on the scoreboard in the first half. They contrasted fake stadium nose (Georgia Dome) vs. real stadium nose (Superdome) and Olympic rings (Atlanta) vs. Super Bowl ring (New Orleans).

There also was a halftime show that included a pep squad spelling out “28-3.”

It’s never going away

But mostly, the Falcons threw themselves onto grenades. The offense committed six penalties on the first three possessions: a holding on Jake Matthews that wiped out most of a 26-yard run by Freeman on the first possession, two false starts (one on Derrick Coleman that negated a fourth-and-one conversion by Freeman), an offensive pass interference on Mohamed Sanu and two personal fouls on Freeman -- one for kicking at a Saints’ player during an un-piling and the other for grabbing a face mask at the end of a run.

“That’s not something we need to put in anyone else’s hands,” coach Dan Quinn said when asked about the penalties. “We had our opportunities in this game and when we look back those are the ones that will be the determination in this game.”

Freeman was asked if he agreed with the two personal fouls.

“I don’t really want to speak on it,” he said. “They’re the refs. I play with so many emotions. They’ve got to make their decisions and I need to do the right thing. Obviously, I have to do a better job.”

The Falcons trailed only 6-0 when wide receiver Marvin Hall had a pass bounce off his hands, various body parts of Saints’ defenders, then ultimately secured and intercepted by Marshon Lattimore. Three plays later, Ted Ginn Jr. scorched Desmond Trufant in the secondary for a 54-yard touchdown pass just before halftime.

If that didn’t end it, this did: Jones, the New Orleans native, intercepted Drew Brees for the third time in his brief career and returned it to the Saints’ two to open the second half. But then came Freeman’s fumble.

“You can’t make mistakes, and we made too many of them,” quarterback Matt Ryan said.

That kind of game. That kind of season.

Even if the Falcons get into the playoffs, it’s difficult to imagine them surviving for long.

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