The incredible shrinking Falcons run afoul of Drew Brees

Drew Brees goes over the top for the winning touchdown in overtime to beat the Atlanta Falcons 43-37 on Sunday, Sept 23, 2018, in Atlanta.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

As fond as I am of grand pronouncements, I’m not sure one applies here. Do the sub-.500 Falcons need to fashion a winning streak soon? Well, yeah. Do they need to stop losing defenders to injury? Yes indeedy. Do they need to stop losing overtime coin flips? Duh.

That said, this was the utter definition of a game that could just as easily have been won. That the Falcons lost came down to one bad possession – and they didn’t have many bad possessions – at the end of regulation, a coin that came up tails and, above all else, Drew Brees. He’s pretty great.

That Brees was, going by passer rating, the lesser of the quarterbacks on display this given Sunday tells us all we need to know about the splendor therein. Brees and Matt Ryan threw 85 passes between them. Sixty-six were completed. None were intercepted. Eight went for touchdowns. (Three to the Falcons rookie Calvin Ridley, who’d have been the star of stars any other day but this.)

The biggest lead either side had was seven points. There were nine lead changes. There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two sides over 60 minutes, and only the NFL’s “modified sudden death” sorted winner from loser. The Saints called “tails.” The Saints took the ball in overtime. They held it for 15 plays spanning 7:05, the longest possession of the long game. They scored the touchdown that ended it. Heck, they scored it twice.

Their possession was sustained by a hairline decision on Brees’ swing pass to Alvin Kamara on third-and-8. The on-field officials signaled first down. The replay crew looked but didn’t intercede. Asked if he was convinced Kamara had made the first down, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, “I was not.”

The long march continued, same as the Patriots’ had that February day in Houston. (New England won the OT toss, too.) Kamara appeared to have scored the winning touchdown, but replay determined that his knee had touched. The ball was spotted at the half-yard line. Brees took the snap and leaped, extending the ball over the line. This touchdown stood. Saints 43, Falcons 37.

“This one stinks for sure,” Quinn said, but it’s hard to find fault with the offense, which mustered five touchdowns and two 2-point conversions. Ryan threw for 374 yards and a career-best five touchdowns. The Falcons scored touchdowns in all four quarters and two in the fourth. Pretty tough to lose when you do that. Somehow they did.

The Saints blocked Matt Bosher’s punt in the third quarter at a time when the Falcons were beginning to seem the better side. That yielded the touchdown that put the visitors back in front, though only by two points. Twice the Falcons retook the lead. Twice the Saints answered, the second time when Robert Alford and Brian Poole endeavored not to tackle the scrambling Brees, who’s 39 and who wound up diving into the end zone. Still, the Falcons had three timeouts and 1:15 remaining to break the tie, and you’d have bet a year’s salary they would.

Had you done so, you’d be rather poorer. The Falcons’ final possession was a shadow of what we’d seen. The first two plays yielded short completions. The next two saw Ryan scramble. On third-and-4, he was hit as he delivered and threw short for Mohamed Sanu. What happened to the pass protection?

Quinn: “That’s a good question that I don’t know the answer to right now. … They definitely had some pressure at the end.”

Ryan: “The only blitz they had was on the third down.”

Ryan again: “The (last possession) was disappointing. We’ve got an opportunity to win the game. We just didn’t execute across the board.”

The Falcons’ offense managed 407 yards. That’s excellent. Their defense yielded 534. That’s terrible. It’s also understandable. The Falcons are missing Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. Takkarist McKinley and Derrick Shelby were inactive Sunday. Ricardo Allen limped off in OT with a calf injury. The Falcons have managed to stay mostly healthy under Quinn – until now, when they’re paying the overdue bill for three years of good fortune.

Once the Saints won the overtime toss, you figured this would go the way – sorry to keep flogging this dead horse – of Super Bowl LI, when the Falcons’ defenders were too weary to muster resistance. New Orleans would run 77 plays to the Falcons’ 60. It faced two third downs on the slow roll to victory and had no lost-yardage plays. The Falcons’ only hope was for replay to take pity on them, and it both didn’t and did. At the end the inevitable happened, and a team some believed to be of Super Bowl caliber is 1-2.

The good news is that the Falcons coulda/shoulda be 3-0. The bad is that they’re not even 2-1, and now they’re lugging a division loss to a rival they’ll see again on Thanksgiving night down there. The loss in Philadelphia was anything but a shootout; with so many defenders missing, the Falcons might have only seen the start of 43-37 finals.

“I certainly hope not,” Quinn said, contemplating the possibility of a series of such wild-and-crazy games. “Some of those guys (meaning injured defenders) will be back.”

They’d better be. The Falcons’ problem isn’t that they’ve built a flimsy roster; on the contrary, they’re about as deep as any team in the hard-capped NFL. There’s just no game-planning for a run of injuries like this, and there’s no beating Drew Brees if you can’t tackle and can’t defend. The Falcons have ample time to right themselves; at issue is whether they have ample able bodies.

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