Not all 5-9 teams are created equal. The Jacksonville Jaguars have won once since Halloween and hold one win over an opponent above .500. The Atlanta Falcons, who won once before Halloween, have turned into the 1985 Bears — OK, slight exaggeration — the past few weeks, beating New Orleans and San Francisco on the road.
When these teams met beneath Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s un-retracted roof Sunday, the difference was apparent from the start. The Jaguars are a mess. The Falcons, who were messed up beyond belief for two months, aren’t bad now. They won 24-12. They’re 6-9 with a game at Tampa remaining. There’s a chance they could save their coach’s job. There’s no chance, however, they could improve on the 7-9 of last season, which would make 2019 more of the same mediocrity, which wasn’t what Arthur Blank had in mind.
But, if it’s OK with you, we’ll table the Dan Quinn discussion for another day, and we’ll spend this space to what the Falcons might have done. At 1-7, they could have sacked up the bats. To their credit, they didn’t. (Hear that? This is me giving the Falcons credit for something.) They were so much better over the season’s second half we can scarcely believe they were 1-7 in the first place, which is pretty much the point.
Said Blank, who’ll have choices to make soon: “You’ve got to be pleased at winning three in a row. We’ve got one to go.”
Then, going big-picture: “It’s the same group of players. They were 1-7; now they’re 5-2. Sometimes in life you don’t have the answers; you just have questions. In this case, you need to have the answers.”
Twenty years from now, folks will browse the annals and say, “Hey, that team started 1-7 and finished 7-9.” (This assumes a win against the Buccaneers, which we really shouldn’t.) And then they’ll say: “That’s not too bad.” And it’s not — unless someone who was around to watch this confounding season pipes up: “That team should never have been 1-7.”
Go back to September. The Falcons no-showed their opener in Minneapolis. They beat Philadelphia, if only just, here on Sunday night. They were 1-1 with games upcoming against Indianapolis, which saw its franchise quarterback retire in August, and Tennessee, which was about to bench Marcus Mariota, once seen as its franchise quarterback. These were winnable games. The Falcons lost both. They led in neither.
After an abject 53-32 loss in Houston, the Falcons flew to Arizona. The Cardinals were working with a rookie quarterback, albeit a good one. Win there and the Falcons are 2-4 with home games against the Rams and Seahawks awaiting. Split those and they’re 3-5 at the bye week, and the season’s second half — as we’re seeing now — always looked softer. Even at 3-5, they’d have had a shot at something. At 1-7, they had none. They beat Philly on Sept. 15 and didn’t win again until Nov. 10. We’ll spend the rest of our lives wondering how such a thing was possible.
Asked how he’d describe 2019, Ryan said: “It’s a tale of two halves of the season. The first half was not what we wanted. The margin for error is small. The difference between being in the (postseason) mix, it’s not much. You have to be on the right side of it.”
For half a season, his team wasn’t. Thus was the season’s penultimate weekend reduced to a mere exercise — a pairing of 5-9 teams in a half-empty stadium on a rainy Sunday three days before Christmas. As for the game itself:
The Falcons led 14-0 before Jacksonville snapped the ball. Given that the Jaguars quit on the season a while back — before lucking up and winning in Oakland last week, they’d lost five in a row by an average of 23.4 points — this might have been one of those 42-3 holiday treats served up in who-cares games. It probably should have been. The Falcons outgained their visitor by 230 yards. Being the Falcons, they found ways to keep it semi-close.
Wes Schweitzer jumped as the Falcons readied to go for it on fourth-and-1. Younghoe Koo missed the ensuing field-goal try. Ryan threw into double coverage and had his pass intercepted. (The man being doubled was Julio Jones, who sometimes snags such throws.) They turned what could have been an end-of-half touchdown into four fewer points when Austin Hooper stepped out two yards short on third-and-7. Ryan threw another interception, his 14th of the season, his most since 2015.
Were Jacksonville any good, the Falcons might have been in trouble. But it’s not, so no biggie. Their lead was 17-6 after three quarters. Qadree Ollison scored to make it 24-6 earlier in the fourth. That was more than enough. Ryan threw for 384 yards. Jones caught 10 passes for 166. “These are special players,” Quinn said, and they are.
The shame of this season will be that two special players aren’t going to the playoffs. Even in the overstuffed library of Falcons Infamy, the 2019 plunge to 1-7 merits its own shelf. For the zillionth time: How did that happen?
As Blank said, sometimes you don’t have the answers. He has another week to come up with one or two. The NFL’s Black Monday is but a game away.
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