Falcons get drilled, problems far worse than Super Bowl hangover

New England's Brandon Cooks celebrates after his 11-yard touchdown catch from Tom Brady gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead. Falcons safety Keanu Neal is on the ground. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
New England's Brandon Cooks celebrates after his 11-yard touchdown catch from Tom Brady gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead. Falcons safety Keanu Neal is on the ground. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – At least one thing was settled Sunday night. It's not as simple as the Falcons having a Super Bowl hangover.

Hangovers don’t last this long, or look this bad, no matter how devastating a loss it was last February. Hangovers may cause a team to come out flat for a game or two, but not face-plant for consecutive home games, not blow a 17-0 lead to a team led by Jay Cutler, not look so anemic against a team that it dominated for the better part of three quarters in the most important game of all.

The problem isn’t that the Falcons can’t forget a loss. The problem is they can’t seem to remember what it takes for them to win. The defense has lost its edge. The offense has lost its mind (or at least its mind went to San Francisco).

Super Bowl revenge match? Surrender was more like it.

In a game played mostly in a fog Sunday night – how poetic – the Falcons were dismembered by the New England Patriots 23-7 at Gillette Stadium.

Hey, no drama this time. Just slop, start to finish. Mistackles. Dumb penalties (including a roughing-the-passer call on Adrian Clayborn that negated an early interception. Horrendous production in the red zone: blocked field goal, missed field goal, downs before finally a touchdown.

The Falcons didn't score until there was 4:09 left in the game. Granted, they were going against Bill Belichick and the Patriots. But New England's defense entered the game ranked last in the NFL in total offense and near the bottom in points allowed.

Not a hangover. A virus that lingers. The Falcons' offense had gone 91 minutes 20 seconds without a point before a late touchdown, the equivalent of more than six quarters, stretching back back to the second quarter against Miami. They took a 17-0 lead. They lost 20-17.

What happened to the team that dazzled us in 2016?

Falcons coach Dan Quinn talked about his team's "resiliency," but there's little evidence of that right now.

Does he believe his team is playing with the edge and confidence it's capable of, as it did in 2016?

"No," Quinn said.

Does he have an idea why?

"I don’t. It’s something I’ll go back and look at. I thought the process of getting ready to play was on point."

Better figure out something fast. The Falcons are 3-3, but functioning as they have for the past few weeks, they're not  acertainty to anybody.

Quinn said his confidence level in offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian remains "extremely high." He added, "He has a very good knowledge of what we’re doing and how to feature the guys. There hasn’t been a time where I’ve felt we need to change this or that, although the results are not what we want them to be."

Last year's team: 33.8 points per game, orchestrated by Kyle Shanahan. This year's team: 21.3 points, orchestrated by Sarkisian

But it's not all about play-calling. The Falcons have regressed in blocking, tackling, passing, catching, play-execution. Even Matt Bryant went 0-for-2 on field goal attempts (one was blocked, the other hit the upright). That about covers it.

When a team plays this poorly in a moment like this, after losing consecutive home games to Buffalo and Miami, after being fortunate to escape with wins over Chicago and Detroit, after presumably countless warnings  that it  needs to snap out of it, that team loses the benefit of the doubt.

It’s not all Sarkisian’s fault. He's an easy target because he's the new guy but it goes beyond him. The Falcons are getting beat up front,  Ryan has not been sharp and he doesn't seem on the same page with his receivers. But, yes: Sarkisian was handed the keys to a Lamborghini and this thing is driving like an exhaust-sputtering Yugo. On consecutive goal-to-go situations from the Patriots’ 1-yard line, Sarkisian called for a drag route to Julio Jones along the back of the end zone (which fell incomplete), then a jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel (which lost yardage).

It's as if the Falcons are convinced they have to go gimmicky. Quinn even went for it on fourth down twice, including once in the first quarter. (Ryan scrambled for nine yards on fourth-and-seven from the Patriots' 48. But that possession ended in a blocked field-goal attempt.)

Running back Devonta Freeman was asked if he would have liked to get the ball from the one. His answer: "I’m a competitor. Of course. But any play that’s called, we just need to execute."

Ryan looks frustrated. At one point against New England, he glared in the direction of Mohamed Sanu after an incompletion where it appeared Sanu ran his route short.

Quinn said the other day that his players were “a little bit on edge, in a good way,” in the days that followed the loss to Miami.

He thought they would play angry. He thought they would play well. He was wrong. Twice.

This game figured to tell us how tough of a team the Falcons were mentally. Now we know. They're not.

This game wasn’t about trying to bring closure to the Super Bowl because, let’s be real, that closet door never will be closed. The Boston Red Sox won three World Series in a 10-year span but people still remember Bill Buckner letting a ground ball go through his legs against the New York Mets in 1986. Dallas Cowboys fans didn’t forget Jackie Smith dropping a touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1979 Super Bowl, even though they won three titles in the 1990s.

The Falcons could go on to win a Super Bowl and people will still think, “They should have two.” Ask Seattle.

So forget closure. This game was more about the Falcons showing whether their heads will remain stuck in time. The collapse that followed 28-3 spawned a cottage industry of memorabilia. There are “28-3” hats, posters, T-shirts. One reads, “Live Every Day Like It’s 28-3.”

Ryan acknowledged this week of the loss, "It’s always going to be a part of you. But it’s about this 2017 team, seeing how good we can be.”

We see now, and the team is not good at all.

Subscribe to the, "We Never Played The Game" podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB's Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.

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