Instead the Browns, of all opponents, were waiting in ambush.
“I told the team I thought we took a step back today,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s tough to see and tough to say. I also told them we must regroup.”
You can’t just write this off as a bad day for the Falcons. An off performance against the Browns should mean, at worst, a competitive loss. This was an all-systems failure for the Falcons, the kind of collapse that left them angry and bewildered.
Last week the Falcons beat down the NFC East leaders on their field. This week they were handled by the last place team in the AFC North. How could this happen?
Falcons defensive backs Damontae Kazee and Desmond Trufant were in no mood to entertain the question.
“Hell no,” Kazee said as he headed for the locker room exit. “I’m gone, man.”
“Every time we lose y’all want to put the cameras in my face,” Trufant said, apparently forgetting about all the cameras after the team’s past three victories.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, whose lost fumble just after halftime sent the Falcons reeling, wasn’t much more expansive.
“We just didn’t play like our standard,” Sanu said to a query about the offensive failure. “Got to be better.”
The thing is, even after three bad quarters of football, the Falcons had a chance to get back in the game or at least show some fighting spirit.
Down 28-10 early in the final period, the Falcons had a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line. The Falcons gained a yard on Matt Ryan’s pass to Eric Saubert and four more on Tevin Coleman’s run. A Browns penalty moved the ball within a couple feet of the goal line.
The Falcons could move it no closer. Coleman got stuffed for no gain on a run, and Ryan’s fourth-down pass for Saubert fell incomplete.
“To be that close to the end zone and not convert and score, that’s discouraging for sure,” Quinn said.
That goal line fiasco was just one moment of offensive futility for the Falcons. There were plenty others.
Center Alex Mack sent a shotgun snap over Ryan’s head. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley fumbled the ball on a run and got lucky that it bounced right back into his grasp. Sanu fumbled the ball away while trying to reach it out — who knows why, because he was 14 yards away from the first-down marker.
After that turnover, the Browns needed to go just 41 yards for a touchdown. They did it in six plays.
“We certainly had a chance with coming out and having the ball in the second half,” Quinn said. “It started with the turnover and kind of went worse from there.”
It’s not as if the Browns beat the Falcons by playing way over their heads. They spent much of the first half keeping the Falcons in the game with their ineptitude.
In the first quarter, the Browns tried to convert a third down with one of those plays in which the quarterback walks away from center and pretends to be confused. The problem was Mayfield really was confused. He didn’t get set before the snap, wiping out the play (it went for no gain, anyway).
Later in the half, with the Falcons still struggling to score, the Browns were making hay with a rare formation. Mayfield lined up with a running back standing behind him and one on either side of him. The Browns ran lots of motion and misdirection out of the look.
It worked. The Browns went 62 yards on six plays, three passes and three runs. Then they got too clever. Mayfield handed off to Derek Hilliard and ran out left. Hilliard passed to Mayfield or, more accurately, to an empty area of the field in Mayfield’s general direction.
Kazee got the easiest interception he’ll ever see. His return set up the Falcons at Cleveland’s 45-yard line, and six plays later the Falcons score on Ryan’s nifty one-yard TD pass to Julio Jones.
The Falcons had been gifted a score by Cleveland’s ineptitude and were up 10-7. I expected the Falcons to snap out of it at that point. But the Browns responded with another touchdown drive, this one for 80 yards.
The Browns unleashed Chubb on power runs and Mayfield delivered easy completions against soft coverage. The Browns scored when Chubb slipped away for a 13-yard TD catch. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell appeared flummoxed by a play fake and couldn’t recover.
That happened a lot. All day, the Browns were going one way with the ball while Falcons defenders went the other. The Browns were quicker to the edges and, when they felt like mixing it up, tougher through the middle.
“No reason why we didn’t play with the effort and energy that normally characterizes our guys,” Quinn said of his defense.
Then again, the defense only gets so much of the blame. The Falcons are built to win by putting up big points. Yet here’s how the first four Falcons drives after halftime ended: fumble, punt, punt and turnover on downs.
The Falcons had one touchdown drive before falling hopelessly behind. That came via great field position after Cleveland’s dumb trick play. The Falcons scuttled a touchdown chance in the second quarter when Mack’s errant snap turned second-and-10 from Cleveland’s 24-yard line into third-and-18.
It was, as mentioned, an embarrassing effort by for the Falcons. While they were losing to the Browns, the Saints were smashing the Bengals in Cincinnati. That’s what good teams do to inferior foes, even on the road.
After this debacle, some Falcons players insisted that they are a quality team that just played a bad game.
“We expect a lot of ourselves,” offensive tackle Jake Matthews said. “We’re a really good team. We’ve just got to bounce back.”
Again, that’s a hard line to buy after the Falcons delivered a performance like this against an opponent this bad. Maybe the Falcons recover to beat the Cowboys at the Benz Dome next week. Perhaps they find a way to win at New Orleans.
Or maybe the Falcons will be sitting at home for the playoffs because of the day they got clowned by the Browns.