The 'middle-of-the-road' Falcons face a crossroads game

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

Credit: Mark Bradley

Credit: Mark Bradley

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

Two months ago, this seemed the least interesting game on the Falcons’ schedule – the reigning NFC champs traveling to New Jersey to face the Jets, whom some believed could go 0-16. The teams meet Sunday, having won the same number of games.

For the reigning NFC champs, this is a must win. Next up: Carolina in Charlotte, then Dallas at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, then Seattle in Seattle. From Halloween on, there’s nary a gimme. For the past two weeks, the question has been: What’s wrong with the Falcons? Lose in Jersey, and we’ll be wondering if the reigning NFC champs can win another game.

Dan Quinn said this week he was “surprised” that his team is 3-3 – surprised, but not astonished. “We’re in the middle of the road on some of these categories that we expect to be better at, and our record is right at the middle of the road,” he said. “I told (the players) that’s usually what you get when the red zone and third down is right there in the middle.”

The Falcons have played six games and induced three turnovers. Two came against Green Bay in Week 2, which marks the only time they’ve resembled the team that reached Super Bowl LI. This is a sore point with Quinn, who wants his fast ‘n’ furious defense to steal possessions. (DQ-ism: “It’s all about the ball.”) Stat folks hold that turnovers aren’t so much a function of skill as luck, that a team subsisting on takeaways one season cannot count on it happening again. The 2016 Falcons were plus-11. The 2017 edition is minus-4.

This defense hasn’t broken into the NFL’s top 10. (It ranks 14th in yards against, 16th against the run, 13th against the pass.) The offense has stopped scoring, which makes no sense. The debate this week centered on Steve Sarkisian, the new-to-the-NFL offensive coordinator. Between the Buffalo and Miami losses, Quinn moved Sarkisian from the sideline to the coaches’ booth. This week the head coach said he’d like to see his team’s average number of rushing plays in “the high 20s.” Not counting scrambles, they’re at 22.7.

Quinn insists there’s no disconnect with Sarkisian, but clearly there is. The disconnect is that the new man isn’t Kyle Shanahan. NFL Research tweeted this week that the Falcons’ offensive tendencies “have not drastically changed.” The scoring has. The Falcons are averaging 21.3 points, down from last season’s 34.8. That’s a difference of two touchdowns and one PAT every game. That’s how a Super Bowl team gets to .500 after the softest part of its schedule.

Millions of earthlings can strum a guitar in a pleasing way, but only one will sound like Robert Fripp. (Indulge me. I saw King Crimson this week at Center Stage.) The Falcons can do the same stuff under Sarkisian that they did under Shanahan, but you’re never going to get “21st Century Schizoid Man” from it. The new guy isn’t the old guy. That happens. When it happens to a team built around its best-in-the-NFL skill people, there’s a problem.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that this team seems too talented not to score enough points. Then again, we’ve been saying that for a month, the past three games yielding 17, 17 and 7. Sunday could/should be a get-well day: The Jets rank 25th in total defense. Know who ranks last? The Patriots, who rendered the Falcons pointless through 55 minutes.

As strong as the Falcons appear on paper – in August, Pro Football Focus ranked this the NFL's best roster – they've looked the part once. Six games don't constitute a season, but time's a-wastin'. Football Outsiders gives the reigning NFC champs only a 23.3 percent chance of making the playoffs and an 11.7 percent chance of repeating as division winner . It also ranks the owner of the NFL's best roster the league's 21st-best team.

This was linebacker Deion Jones on Monday: “We’re resetting. We can’t harden our heart to the situation.”

Later that day, Quinn met the media and was as far removed from his gung-ho self as DQ gets. If he didn’t rip anyone by name, neither did he sing of seashells and balloons. His grim message was clear: Change is needed. It’s prove-it time for this lovingly assembled team. If these Falcons don’t get going, they won’t just be the team that blew the Super Bowl. They’ll be the team that blew the Super Bowl and never recovered.

Any recovery must begin at MetLife Stadium. Beating the Jets won’t prove all that much, but losing would call everything Quinn has built into question. Losing would brand the reigning NFC champs a 21st Century Schizoid Team.