Falcons out of playoffs because offense failed them too often

Julio Jones can’t make the catch on a fourth-down pass from Matt Ryan with Philadelphia’s Jalen Mills defending in the endzone in the final minute of Saturday’s divisional playoffs game. The Falcons lost 15-10 to end their season.
Julio Jones can’t make the catch on a fourth-down pass from Matt Ryan with Philadelphia’s Jalen Mills defending in the endzone in the final minute of Saturday’s divisional playoffs game. The Falcons lost 15-10 to end their season.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

If there was even a trace of justification for the late-game unraveling and the manner in which the Falcons’ season ended a year ago, it’s that they lost to arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and a coach and a franchise that have become associated with all-time-best arguments.

But this wasn’t Tom Brady. It was Nick Foles. Until a few weeks ago, he was a backup, on the sideline, where he belonged.

This wasn’t Bill Belichick and New England. It was Doug Pederson and Philadelphia, which until Saturday hadn’t won a playoff game since 2008.

Then again, this wasn’t the Falcons, either. At least not the version we expected, given the talent level and where the bar was set in 2016.

The Falcons’ season is over. Why? Because they couldn’t beat just half of a football team. They lost 15-10 in a divisional playoff game. An odd-and-ugly score in an odd-and-ugly game.

They managed only 281 yards of offense. They scored one touchdown – and even that was a relative gimme of an 18-yard drive following a fumbled punt return. They were outplayed by an Eagles team that is stout on defense, but otherwise should be in no shape to win playoff games with an offense rendered anemic after the recent loss of quarterback Carson Wentz to a knee injury.

This is how the season ends: not with a huge blown lead in the NFL’s final game in overtime, but with an incompletion. Matt Ryan’s roll-out pass attempted for Julio Jones from the Eagles’ 2-yard line went over the outstretched hands of the receiver, culminating in another red-zone failure, a hallmark of this season’s team.

A case could be made that Jones was interferred with by Jalen Mills. Jones slipped but Mills had his hands on him and appeared to give him a little push, sending Jones to the ground. The receiver then got up and just missed making the catch.

But Jones is never one to blame officials and he wasn’t going to start Saturday: “I ended up on the ground, you know? In that situation, though, it’s very difficult for an official to call that play (a penalty)."

And here’s the thing: The Falcons never should have allowed it to come down to that one play.

Kyle Shanahan, the former offensive coordinator, was cursed through the offseason after the Super Bowl. Steve Sarkisian, the current one, will be maligned during this one.

Sarkisian should not be blamed for all of the Falcons’ offensive problems this season. The offensive line failed at times, and there were far too many dropped passes by receivers or misfires by Ryan. But more than his share of darts willl be thrown in his direction. The Falcons spend most of their payroll on offense, and that’s where their biggest stars are.

From Ryan: “There were too many times when we were inconsistent.”

From Jones (who had seven drops for a team that led the NFL in drops): “We’re way better than we played, for sure.”

Will the Falcons make a change? Very doubtful.

“I recognize that goes with the job, and so does Sark,” coach Dan Quinn said. “We’ll assess it all after the season. There’s a lot of things Sark has brought to our team that we like. It’s easy to place blame on one person, but it’s a shared responsibility when we don’t achieve at the level that we’d like to do. Like all parts of our organization, (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and I will assess how we want to do things better.”

In most Falcons seasons, winning a road Wild Card game and losing on the road in the Divisional round would be acceptable. Not this one. Their offense was too talented and the defense was too good to have the season end Saturday.

This is not a team that should lose to Nick Foles, Jay Cutler (Miami) and Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo), or nearly lose to Mike Glennon (Chicago).

The Falcons led 10-9 at halftime. There are barges floating near the stadium more attractive than the football we witnessed. The Eagles, nine years removed from their previous playoff win, fumbled four times in the first half and lost two of them. Still, the Falcons scored only 10 points. That should tell you something.

They drove to a field goal on their first possession after the Eagles fumbled on their second play from scrimmage. (The drive stalled in the red zone.) They took another gift-wrapped possession for a touchdown in the second quarter after Philly muffed a punt return on its own 18. This time, after Mohamed Sanu dropped a touchdown in the end zone, it took a desperation, 6-yard, shovel/shotgun pass from a scrambling Ryan to Devonta Freeman to get the ball in the end zone.

Some of the play-calling didn’t seem logical. On one play, Ryan threw deep directly into a strong wind for Jones. Predictably, the ball was blown back and Jones had to come back and play defense to prevent an interception.

The Falcons tried other deep passes. Why? Moving methodically and even coming away with only field goals would put pressure on an offensive-challenged opponent.

There was one other noticeable difference from the Falcons’ Wild Card win at Los Angeles last week: The defense wasn’t nearly as sharp. There were several missed tackles and run plays when the Falcons couldn’t get off their blocks, as well as two pass-interference penalties.

Philly churned out two long, time-consuming drives that led to field goals (after being stopped in the red zone). The drives ate up more than 13 minutes, keeping Ryan on the sideline.

But the defense allowed only 15 points. That should be good enough for the Falcons to win a game.

Trailing 15-10, the Falcons got the ball back with 6:02 left. Plenty of time. Ryan and Jones connected for 20 yards on fourth-and-six from the 42. Soon, the Falcons found themselves with a first down at the Eagles’ nine.

Dramatic win coming? No.

No run plays were called. Incomplete on a fade to Jones. Incomplete to Terron Ward. Seven yards to Jones to make it fourth down at the two. Play call: roll out. It took away half the field but Quinn believed (or said) the Falcons thought it gave them the best chance for success.

“We wanted to put it in Matt’s and Julio’s hands,” he said.

But it failed. It was a microcosm of the season.

The offense didn’t need to be as good as a year ago. It just needed to be better than this.

Fresh pod: Reflecting on Georgia's loss and forecasting Falcons-Eagles

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