After providing fresh material for two weeks, the Falcons came home and played a rerun for their fans. The 35-22 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday looked much like the six consecutive losses that sank the season. It looked nothing like the spirited victories at the Saints and Panthers.
The loss means the Falcons (3-8) will have consecutive non-winning seasons for the first time since 2014-15. It confirmed that they are a bad team that played over their heads for a couple of weeks. The Bucs had the same record as the Falcons and didn’t play particularly well, but still won by two touchdowns as 3-1/2-point underdogs.
Tampa Bay receivers ran free through the zone defense. The Falcons generated no pass rush. They couldn't block for run or pass. After a two-week hiatus, we return to our regularly scheduled Falcons program of noting that these are season-long problems with no easy fixes for 2020.
The rebuilt Falcons offensive line has been a bust. The Falcons might spend the offseason convincing themselves that guard pick Chris Lindstrom, their first-round pick who’s been on the injured list since Week 1, will make all the difference when he returns. I’m not buying it.
The Falcons didn't sack Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, hit him just once and let him wriggle free for a 24-yard run to convert a third-and-9. Dan Quinn/Thomas Dimitroff teams have never generated a consistent pass rush. It required no foresight to see that the Falcons erred in retaining Vic Beasley (2015 first-round pick) on a cap-busting contract. Takk McKinley (2017 first-round pick) has shown only flashes of greatness as a pass rusher.
It turns out the Falcons have not solved their communication issues in the secondary. AJC Falcons writer D. Orlando Ledbetter reported that, at one point, safety Damontae Kazee scolded rookie cornerback Kendall Sheffield for playing too shallow in the zone alignment. Well, Kazee often played too deep. Get it together, fellas.
Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin went for 184 yards and two touchdowns by simply running to the ample open space provided by the Falcons. The Falcons snagged two interceptions because Winston is an amazing turnover machine. He also had 11.2 yards per pass attempt and three touchdowns.
The one new twist in the game, odd game management by Quinn, really is an oldie. It just hadn’t come up much this year because the Falcons have had few close games.
With Tampa Bay driving to score near the end of the first half, Quinn initiated a failed replay challenge and called two timeouts. He decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-16 from Tampa Bay’s 20-yard line with the Falcons down 15 points and 8:16 to go. Those decisions ended up mattering little for the outcome, but they weren’t optimal.
Not everything was bad for the Falcons. Younghoe Koo went 3-for-3 on field goals to improve to 10-for-11 in three games. Maybe the Falcons found their kicker for 2020 after botching the position during the offseason. Hey, that’s something.
The Braves got better at catcher
Brian McCann started all five games at catcher for the Braves during the NLDS. McCann's days as MLB's best-hitting catcher were well behind him, and that's how he looked against the Cardinals. McCann retired after the Braves lost the series.
To replace him the Braves signed Travis d'Arnaud to a two-year contract. He was a far superior hitter to McCann in his last two full seasons and should be productive again in 2020. That's why this move makes the Braves better.
D’Arnaud’s 1.5 offensive Wins Above Replacement in 2019 were significantly better than the combined 1.1 WAR for McCann and Braves holdover Tyler Flowers. With a combination of d’Arnaud and Flowers, the Braves can expect to improve on their 2019 NL ranking of 12th in offensive WAR for catchers.
This year represented a successful return from 2018 elbow surgery for d’Arnaud, 30. He was good for the Rays after the Mets released him after four games and the Dodgers traded him after one. D’Arnaud’s track record as a hitter is good when healthy: a 2.1 offensive WAR in both 2014 and 2015, and 1.3 offensive WAR in 2017.
As for defense, d’Arnaud may be a slight downgrade from McCann. This season Baseball Prospectus rated him lower than McCann in pitch framing and pitch blocking and slightly better at throwing out runners (which isn’t saying much). But d’Arnaud rated higher than Flowers in all but pitch framing, which is the latter’s specialty.
Add it all up, and the d’Arnaud/Flowers duo figures to be much better overall than McCann/Flowers combo.
Georgia’s offense remained lackluster
Even after another ho-hum effort by Georgia's offense, I submit that it's reasonable to believe the Bulldogs can ride elite defense and great kicking to the College Football Playoff.
Rodrigo Blankenship really has "become a weapon for us" as coach Kirby Smart said after the victory over Texas A&M. Georgia is good enough offensively to give Blankenship plenty of chances to score. The Bulldogs have beaten good teams using that formula.
The problem is that makes Georgia nothing special among CFP contenders. Ohio State and Clemson play great defense and are explosive offensively. The same is true for Utah, which is in position represent the Pac-12 in the CFP.
Like Oklahoma, the Bulldogs aren’t a complete team. Unlike Oklahoma or LSU, Georgia isn’t so dominant on one side of the ball that it makes that not matter so much. Georgia’s great defense sagged against Auburn and Texas A&M, games in which its offense ran just 30 plays after halftime.
The Bulldogs missed some big play chances against Texas A&M because quarterback Jake Fromm’s throws were way off. Maybe it was the rain, or the glove on Fromm’s throwing hand. It’s possible that creating those big-play chances against a good defense is a sign that Georgia’s offense is close to breaking out just in time for the looming showdown with LSU in the SEC championship game.
The Bulldogs should have little trouble scoring against Georgia Tech on Saturday. They might score enough against LSU's defense, which is lackluster by its usual standard. That's the reason I believe the Tigers make a better opponent for Georgia than Alabama.
But the Tigers are so good offensively that in their worst game they gained 30 first downs and averaged 5.8 yards per play. That happened against Auburn, a great defensive team that limited Georgia to 16 first downs and 3.9 yards per play.
Georgia’s defense is good enough to slow LSU, too. Auburn scored 20 against LSU. Maybe the Bulldogs can score more points than that. But it’s a little late to still be wondering about Georgia’s offense.
My Weekend Predictions are 5-7 so far
To keep alive hopes of avoiding a losing week, I needed the Packers to cover as a three-point underdog at San Francisco on Sunday night. Those hopes were dashed by halftime. My third losing week of the season can get worse if the Ravens (-3) don't cover at the Rams Monday night.
I gave in to recency bias with the Falcons and Bulldogs. The Falcons had two good weeks and Georgia scored three touchdowns against Auburn, but those weren’t trends. Trusting the Falcons was especially dumb.
I got a little unlucky when the Patriots (-6½) opted not to try for a field goal that would have covered against the Cowboys. Then again, I got a little lucky when LSU backed off late and allowed Arkansas (+44) to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 56-20 loss.
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