A season in miniature: Trailing by 20 points after falling behind 34-7, the Falcons were within eight yards of a touchdown that would force the Packers to make a play to blunt a semi-serious rally. The Packers’ Bashaud Breeland wound up making that play – by falling on an Alex Mack snap that struck Mohamed Sanu, who wasn’t its intended target, in the leg.
How, in Game No. 13, does such a thing happen? How does sending a man in motion, which every team does on most every play, beget a game-clinching turnover? How does a team picked by some to win the Super Bowl exit Lambeau Field assured of having a losing season?
The seeds of this forlorn campaign were sown in September, when three key defenders landed on injured reserve. But one of those – linebacker Deion Jones – has returned, and he contributed to Sunday’s 34-20 loss by dropping two interceptions and being called for two penalties, which is symptomatic of this entire roster. A lot of good players have been playing lousy football. Ergo, 4-9.
“It’s definitely maddening and frustrating,” Dan Quinn said of his team’s record. “There’s definitely disbelief.”
Back to the botched snap: Did Mack deliver it too soon? Was Sanu too slow in his motioning? “I don’t know,” Quinn said.
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Then: “To have that happen, it’s almost hard to do.”
Matt Ryan being Matt Ryan, he tried to take the blame. “I need to do a better job of timing it up, of lifting my foot (the signal for Mack) and making sure everything’s clear.” But such altruism wasn’t what a Fox’s camera caught on the sideline. What it captured was Ryan yelling that his teammates should “get freaking set,” or words to that effect.
If you’ve ever wondered if highly paid professional athletes care about anything beyond the next check clearing, this game – and this improbably awful season – have supplied the answer. The Falcons tried hard here Sunday, and for parts of the game they seemed the better team. They led 7-0 after a spiffy first drive. They sacked Aaron Rodgers four times in the first half. They held the Packers to 300 yards, which marks 94 below the Falcons’ usual yield.
This availed them not one whit. They were outscored 34-0 after that opening touchdown. They trailed by 13 at the half. What should have been, by Falcons’ standards, a strong defensive showing was more than offset by a slew of penalties, not all of which were assessed against the oft-culpable Robert Alford. (Though one was, after which Alford was benched.)
The first play of the second half saw Damontae Kazee flagged for lowering his head to initiate contact. The second saw Foye Oluokun called for holding. The next two plays proceeded without untoward incident. The fifth saw Jones ticketed for illegal contact. The Packers scored a touchdown to make it 27-7 on a drive that saw 25 of the 72 needed yards gifted.
And it wasn’t just the defense. Three offensive linemen – Wes Schweitzer, Jake Matthews and Mack – were called for holding. Schweitzer’s infraction scrubbed a 32-yard Julio Jones catch at the Packers’ 13 in the second quarter; Matthews’ erased a 32-yard gain by Sanu in the third. There’s 64 yards gone with the wind.
Said Quinn: “Penalties, mistakes and turnovers – for us to be the team we think we can be, that can’t be our identity.”
Ryan: “The margin for wins and losses in this league is razor thin. We’re 4-9 because we’ve made critical mistakes. … We’ve got good players.”
Yes, and there’s the disconnect. As many injuries as the Falcons have had, they shouldn’t have fallen this far. Only bad teams should be 4-9. But, seeing as how the Falcons are indeed 4-9, what does that make them?
Quinn again: “Our style is clearly not carrying over into game day.”
Actually, it is. That’s the trouble. The Falcons have amassed so many DQ Guys to play the DQ Way – fast and physical – that they get going too fast and playing too forcefully. Attention to detail is, shall we say, lacking. “The team that makes mistakes is the team that’s going to lose,” Vic Beasley said, and guess what team has lost five in a row?
“We’re nowhere near the identity we want to be,” Quinn said, but at some point – and this was Game 13 of Year 4 under this coach – you are what you are. The Falcons didn’t lose by double digits for the fourth time in these five games because they’ve stopped hustling. They lost because they’ve grown sloppy bordering on silly. Quality control is non-existent.
This includes Ryan, ordinarily the technician’s technician. His bizarre fumble on an attempted pass – “It slipped out of my hand and went backward” – forced Matt Bryant to try a 53-yard field goal that would have broken a 7-all tie. It fell five yards short. (Kicking outside on the frozen tundra isn’t the same as climate-controlled booting.) After seeing the Packers send three blitzers off the left side, Ryan looked to secondary target Austin Hooper on the right. Breeland snagged the ball and banked a Pick-6.
It could be that this season is so far gone that nothing much matters. It could also be that we’re now seeing that the DQ Method has sailed past the point of diminishing returns. His team is 15-16 since it blew a 25-point lead with the world watching. His team has, in the span of five weeks, lost twice to interim coaches. To fall short on this famed field is usually no disgrace, but these Packers entered only half-game better than the Falcons and won by two touchdowns.
“I want to make sure our identity’s coming back,” Quinn said, and maybe that’s the problem. Forget the identity politics. The NFL runs on execution. In that department, his Falcons are running on empty.