The Falcons are officially done. The cleanup can begin

It essentially was over a while ago; it’s officially over now. The Falcons have four games remaining. All they can accomplish is to compromise the Round 1 pick for whoever’s making picks for this team come April. Time to play the freshmen. Time to get Matt Ryan out of there while he has all his limbs. Time to let Julio Jones, who didn’t play Thursday, have a long winter’s nap.

A season that began with high expectations has outstripped everyone’s worst nightmare. The Falcons are 3-9. On Thanksgiving night, they became the third team – the NFL has 32 – eliminated from playoff consideration. The other two are Cincinnati, which hasn’t won a game, and Detroit, which is on its third-string quarterback. That’s the low company this highly regarded team is keeping.

Dan Quinn will be fired soon. It serves no purpose to do it tomorrow or anytime before the NFL’s Black Monday, but it’s coming. A coach can’t fire his three coordinators one December and keep his job if his team is playing for pride 11 months later. There have been worse Falcons seasons – not many, but one or two.

There has never been one so deflating.

Loss No. 9 began the way Loss No. 1 had, way back on Sept. 8 in Minneapolis. The Falcons took the opening kickoff. Ryan was sacked on the first snap. A punt was blocked. (This wasn't scored as a blocked punt because the ball trickled across the scrimmage line, but that's asterisk stuff.) The opponent seized a 7-0 lead inside the first four minutes.

The rest of this game wasn't as bad as the non-competitive loss to the Vikings, but let's not be fooled by the 26-18 final. It was 26-9 with 3-1/2 minutes remaining, whereupon New Orleans made a concerted attempt to squander this lead as badly as its Southern rival had botched 28-3. The Saints whiffed on two onside kicks. (Three, to be precise, but the first required a redo because of a Falcons penalty.)

Inside the final minute, the Falcons had the ball in Saints’ territory with a chance to tie. They would have had a chance to win had Quinn not opted to go for two after Russell Gage’s touchdown with 3:31 left, but give him this: The decision to kick a field goal to draw within eight just after the two-minute warning nearly came up trumps. That said, these are Quinn’s Falcons, which means they fell short at the end. One final sack of Ryan – No. 9, if you’re keeping score – and it was done.

This will sound weird, but the Saints mightn’t have played much better in winning here than they had in their shocking 26-9 loss to the 1-7 Falcons 18 days ago in the Superdome. Yes, Drew Brees was sacked six fewer times, but his passer rating was scarcely better (88.8, as opposed to 87.9). His team managed 31 fewer yards (279 this time). His receivers dropped four passes, one a sure touchdown.

On three consecutive second-half possessions, New Orleans took the ball from Ryan – the first two on interceptions, the third on a fumble while scrambling – and teed up Brees and Co. in the Falcons’ half of the field. The Saints managed one first down. Wil Lutz kept kicking field goals, which seemed to suffice at the time, but two misplayed onside kicks changed those dynamics. The presumptive NFC South champs had to sweat to subdue a team they could’ve beaten by 20.

This only underscores to the greater opportunity not grasped by these Falcons. The Saints clinched the division with a month to spare, and the Saints aren’t that good. Brees, who’s 40, looks worse every time you see him, and Sean Payton’s team again suffers in the attention-to-detail department. The Saints incurred 121 yards on nine accepted penalties, five of which gifted the Falcons a first down. And whoever’s coaching special teams might emphasize that it’s OK to move forward and, you know, grab the bouncing ball.

VIDEO: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan speaks after the loss to the Saints Thursday night. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

Had the Falcons just started 4-4, they might have caught the Saints in December. Moot point now. Said Ryan, speaking of the four meaningless games ahead: “You don’t want to be in that position. You want to be competing and having bigger stuff ahead of you in January.”

Won’t happen here. What will is a coach-search, and surely a GM-search as well. This makes back-to-back losing seasons for a team that reached the Super Bowl three years ago and made the playoffs a year later. This is a team with many high-salaried players – Ryan, J. Jones, Deion Jones, Alex Mack, Devonta Freeman, Grady Jarrett (whom the Saints haven’t blocked yet) – but it’s a bad team. Somebody must answer for that. I doubt Arthur M. Blank has a hankering to fire himself.

“I loved the fight at the end,” Quinn said. But even the world’s most cheerful man conceded: “No silver lining.”

We’ve said it a hundred times, but here’s the 101st: Nobody saw this coming. Worst-case scenario, you figured, was 8-8. Even that’s gone. Quinn again: “It’s definitely been maddening not to have the performances that we’d have liked.”

Asked if he’d take this final month to let younger guys play and older guys rest – some might call that tanking, we concede – Quinn said what you’d expect. “We’ll approach it the same way. ... Part of playing and competing is going for it in the biggest way.”

In a perfect world, that’s true. This season has been imperfect beyond belief. Over the summer, the owner spoke of wanting a ring. Well, it’s Black Friday, and I’m sure Tiffany is having a sale. It might even kick in the engraving for free – “2019 Falcons: most gifted team ever eliminated in November.”