The Falcons’ latest low: a last-second loss in Arizona

GLENDALE, AZ. – If a situation is ripe for embarrassment, the Falcons have made it so this season.

This was a must-win for any team with playoff aspirations. The Falcons played at the Cardinals, who were 1-8. Quarterback Kyler Murray was playing his first game in 11 months after tearing his ACL. Every road game presents challenges, but this was as tame an environment as you’ll get. The Cardinals even committed 11 penalties for 112 yards to further help the away team’s cause.

Most importantly, the Falcons needed to stop the bleeding going into their bye week. Despite consecutive losses, including an ugly one to the Josh Dobbs-led Vikings the previous week, they could’ve been atop the NFC South with seven games remaining.

Cardinals 25, Falcons 23.

Murray, who wasn’t fresh off the bus with a new team like Dobbs but nonetheless hadn’t played a football game since Dec. 12, 2022, led a game-winning drive with Matt Prater making a lay-up kick as time expired.

And on that drive, Murray converted a third-and-10 around midfield with a 13-yard scamper. He found tight end Trey McBride on a 33-yard completion to the 9-yard line a couple plays later. That’s the dynamic quarterback play the Falcons simply lack.

“It just adds a different dimension to the game that maybe isn’t there when you’re just writing the Xs and Os,” linebacker Kaden Elliss said about Murray. “As much as you try to plan for it – he has a (Heisman) trophy back home for a reason. There’s a lot more (running quarterbacks) in the league and we just have to self-reflect and look at how we capitalize on the opportunities when we have him in a trap, when we have him in our sights, so that we can finish it.”

The Falcons’ quarterback, Taylor Heinicke, was leading a largely uninspiring offense for most of the game before he suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter. The Falcons had 32 net passing yards upon his exit. They had 17 points, just three in the second half thanks to a short field.

Desmond Ridder entered and positioned the team to win with a clutch touchdown drive, but for the second straight week, the defense couldn’t hold. Since limiting Tampa Bay to 13 points, the Falcons are surrendering 28 points per game over their three-game skid. For context, the Broncos have the NFL’s worst scoring defense at 28.3 points per game.

“You have to look at yourself,” Elliss said. “That’s something from the top down that’s been preached to us. It’s something we have to do over the bye week. The one reason, the one word to encompass (our defensive struggles) is something I don’t have. But I do know that if each of us look at ourselves, and our units, and how we can improve and let talent shine on that field, then we can get it fixed.”

Another Sunday, another disturbing post-game press conference with coach Arthur Smith. He spoke highly of Ridder, who could be the starter again when the Falcons return from their bye, and he defended his players and staff. Asked if it felt like the season was unraveling, Smith was quick to push back.

“No, not at all,” Smith said. “We feel frustrated. But I would not use that word (‘unravel’). I’m betting on (the people we have).”

Later, Smith noted his team is still in the NFC South race. “We have to make an adjustment,” he said. “We have seven games left and we’re not out of it. We’re going to give everything we have, humanly possible, to do our job better and go win this division. That’s all we can control.”

Smith’s players also focused on how they still control their destiny. They are, after all, just a game behind New Orleans in the NFC South. They were one defensive stop away from first place Sunday.

That’s more of an indictment on the division than the Falcons. After 10 games, they aren’t a good football team. They have potential. They’ve had promising moments. They have some blue-chip individual talents. Certainly, they could host a playoff game because this division’s champion - and we use that term as loosely as possible - might need only eight or nine wins.

But how could anyone feel confident about that at this juncture? They’re 4-6 with the NFL’s easiest schedule. They’re 2-6 since winning their first two games, now losing three straight by one possession. They have only one victory against a winning team – the Texans – and three of their four wins have come by a combined six points.

The Falcons have a negative-28 point differential. The only teams in the NFC who’ve fared worse are the Giants (minus 148), Panthers (minus 89), Cardinals (minus 87), Commanders (minus 57) and Bears (minus 51). The Falcons lost to Washington and Arizona.

If quarterback was their only issue, maybe you could talk yourself into a winter run. But they have myriad problems.

Only eight teams have produced fewer sacks (21). Only four teams have recorded fewer interceptions (five). Offensively, only nine teams have produced fewer touchdowns (18). Just two teams have worse turnover differentials (minus 6) and that’s despite the Falcons winning the turnover battle 1-0 Sunday. The Falcons have a manageable schedule remaining - they don’t face a team with a winning record - but they’ve already failed to take advantage of their slate. The bye comes at a good time, allowing this team to reflect.

“Everybody should look in the mirror and take accountability for doing your 1 of 11,” cornerback A.J. Terrell said. “What could you have done better to help us get the W?”

All this said, the Falcons host the Saints in two weeks. That’s a pivotal game that will determine this team’s outlook: Will it stay in a division race or lose its fourth straight, an outcome that seems like it’d end their season, even in the NFC South?

There are a lot of questions surrounding this franchise over the next two months.