This was a winning effort in every way except the fundamental one: The Falcons didn’t win. And how exactly did they manage not to win?
“I have no idea,” receiver Roddy White said.
“We had some success,” left guard Justin Blalock said, “but those things don’t matter much in the grand scheme.”
“We outrushed them,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We out-statistic’ed them. But those small intricate plays added up.”
“We got down in the red zone and didn’t score touchdowns,” said White, who got the idea. “You’ve got to score touchdowns.”
“We kicked way too many field goals,” coach Mike Smith said, though he was, as we’ll see, complicit in this.
On its face, this wasn’t a bad loss, coming as it did on the road against an unbeaten opponent with the Falcons missing five starters. But that’s what made it the most puzzling loss the Falcons have suffered in their five-plus seasons under this coach. They played better than anyone had a right to expect, and they outplayed the Miami Dolphins in every way except one.
The Falcons outrushed and outpassed the Dolphins. Though Smith would insist — three times! – that his team lost the turnover battle, it didn’t. (Each side turned it over twice.) The Falcons took their standard double-figure lead 17 minutes into the game and didn’t trail until 38 seconds remained.
Given the circumstances, the Falcons played their best game of the season. They ran the ball better than they had with Steven Jackson healthy, blocked better than with Sam Baker available, rushed the passer harder than before Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon were disabled. Just eyeballing the doings here Sunday, you’d have sworn they were the better team by a half-mile. Alas, they banked only two touchdowns from five incursions across the Miami 20.
“We didn’t leave here with a win,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “This game is about getting W’s. We gave great effort, but it’s a production league and a production game.”
Sometimes, though, it’s a game of daring. The Falcons and Smith used to be fearless. What the heck happened to them?
Dating to last season’s playoffs, the Falcons have taken a double-figure lead in five consecutive games. They’ve lost three of the five and trailed a fourth with 31 seconds remaining.
Let’s be clear: Smith doesn’t stand on the sideline and tell his men, “We’re up 10-zip. That’s good enough.” If anyone knows how fleeting a lead can be, it’s this coach and this team. But something happens to the Falcons when Plan A ceases to work. They’ve outscored opponents 91-40 in the first halves of those past five games; they’ve been outscored 90-34 in the second halves.
And here, perhaps too conveniently, we saw Smith’s team risk less as the game wore on. An instructive moment came a bit more than two minutes before halftime. Ahead 10-7 but having had much the better of play, the Falcons faced fourth-and-1 at the Miami 2. There was a time when Smith went for it, albeit not always successfully, on fourth-and-1. On this day he didn’t even let the clock wind down to the two-minute warning to give it a good think.
The Falcons kicked a field goal, which would be answered by Miami before the half was done. They left four points at the Dolphins’ 2-yard line. They would lose, not coincidentally, by four points.
“It was too far,” Smith said of his decision. “We were going to go for it if it was half a yard or less. This was a yard or a yard and a half.”
Much still had to go wrong for the Falcons to lose this game. Much did. Harry Douglas fumbled on a punt return after warning teammates to let the ball bounce. Matt Bryant missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt that would have put the Falcons ahead by six points with 4:46 to play.
The defense watched Miami convert three third downs — quarterback Ryan Tannehill had been sacked five times and turned it over twice — on its final drive, which was capped by a tight end beating linebacker Stephen Nicholas. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.)
This was a game that was easier for the Falcons to win than to lose, but they contrived to blow it. They’re 1-2 for the first time under Smith, which doesn’t mean all that much, but this weird get-ahead-only-to-fall behind trend — and five games do make a trend — is most troubling.
Smith’s Falcons used to be experts at finding outrageous ways to win. Now they’re inventing ways to lose. And Smith, who’s the best coach this franchise has known, needs to remember that some risks do carry rewards.
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