Ten points down, time flying, season on the line. The offense finally did its bit, emphasis on “finally.” Now it was 19-all, 1:52 remaining, and with a three-and-out the Falcons might well have won in regulation. But there’s a reason this defense is rated the NFL’s worst by Football Outsiders, and that defense is why a team with this offense was essentially facing playoff elimination before Thanksgiving.
We saw it again Sunday, same as we’d seen on consecutive September Sundays against the Saints and the Bengals: If you have the ball last against the Falcons, you’re golden. The Cowboys had it last. They gained 51 yards on dink passes and a couple of tee-up-the-kicker runs. They made the field goal as time expired. The Falcons’ season pretty much expired with it.
This 22-19 loss – the third home loss this fall in which the winning points came inside the final seven seconds – dropped the Falcons to 4-6. They'd have to win out to have any playoff chance, and they still must travel to New Orleans, Green Bay and Charlotte. Football Outsiders assessed their postseason possibilities at 11.5 percent before Sunday's kickoff, and you can slice that in half now. This isn't happening. After that 1-4 start and all those defensive injuries, it was never happening.
Which didn’t make this loss any easier. Dan Quinn began his post-game briefing by mentioning “the big picture” – that miracle upon miracle would have to occur for this team to play beyond December – and then saying, “Honestly, the only thing on our minds is getting ready to fight again (in NOLA) on Thursday night.”
Honestly, that was a fib. The unthinkable loss in Cleveland had rendered this game a must, and it was at home against an opponent in similarly dire straits: Dallas was likewise 4-5 with a Thanksgiving game awaiting against its division leader. The Falcons’ mighty offense sputtered for three quarters. Matt Ryan was sacked three times in the first half and hit a half-dozen times more, and the great Julio Jones dropped a pass inside the Cowboys’ 5. (It was a duck of a throw, to be fair.)
You wouldn’t have bet on the pitch-and-putt Cowboys – they had two gains longer than 18 yards, one a screen pass and the other an up-the-gut run, both by Ezekiel Elliott – would have been the first to bank a touchdown. (They should have banked one, but Cole Beasley did his Jackie-Smith-in-the-Super-Bowl imitation on their first drive.) Even when they broke though in the first minute of the final quarter, Brett Maher missed the PAT.
Three plays later, Dallas had the ball again. Ryan tried to slip an inside fastball to Calvin Ridley. The ball thunked off the rookie’s hands into the arms of Leighton Vander Esch, the best defender on this field. Was Ryan satisfied that he put the ball on target? “I couldn’t see it from my vantage point. Those in the middle of the field are tough.”
Two Elliott runs brought another touchdown and a 10-point lead, 12:33 remaining. Desperate now, the Falcons drove to Matt Bryant’s fourth field goal, and then, on the first snap after the two-minute warning, a terrific throw by Ryan became a more terrific Jones touchdown catch. Next thing you knew, the Cowboys were facing third-and-5 and Quinn was burning his first timeout at 1:38.
Ryan: “I felt like our defense was going to get the stop and we’d have the opportunity.”
Quinn: “We were going in with the mindset we’re going to stop it and give our offense a chance.”
But no. Dak Prescott found Michael Gallup along the left sideline in front of Robert Alford. (Quinn: “We had a double on. They went to a different person. Those are the matchups in that part of the game you’ve got to win.”) Then the quarterback made a deft flip to Elliott. Then Beasley shook loose for 19 yards. The ball was at the Falcons’ 30, soon to be sailing between the goalposts at 0:00. Hello, 4-6. Goodbye, playoffs.
Quinn: “We must close in those situations.”
Then, having been reminded that this was the third such home loss this season: “They’re the hardest as a competitor. Call it last play, last shot, whatever – those definitely sting the most.”
Someone asked if Quinn believed his was a 4-6 team. “I don’t,” he said. “I love the fight of the guys and the energy. (But) that is where we are, and that’s the hard part for us. We’ve just got to go into this game, this week, and not think about the big picture.”
The season began with the Falcons dreaming of playing a Super Bowl on their home turf. It unraveled on this very turf. The defense might have been OK, but it lost so many guys so soon that we’ll never know. On those days the offense was kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, this team had no shot.
Said defensive tackle Grady Jarrett: “There’s nothing to say. We’ve got to go back to work. Sometimes we talk too much. It is what it is.”
“It’s uphill,” Quinn said, asked about his team’s final six games. “We all know that. When you go into the locker room, it’s emotional. Guys are upset.”
We’ll have from now until New Year’s to sift through the debris, but there’s no mystery here. The Falcons started 1-4. They sent three key defenders to injured reserve before September was done. They could only win shootouts, and relying on this defense to stop somebody when it mattered was hoping against hope. There’s nothing else to say. It is what it is.
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