EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Lawrence Tynes' game winning field goal had barely cleared the uprights when the Falcons started trudging off the field.
Some went straight for the locker room, others to shake hands while others just grouped in circles, perhaps wondering where did that 4-1 start go. Instead of the showers, they might as well have been heading to the back on the NFC playoff line.
Because now, they've wasted their best start in five years, after Sunday's crushing 34-31 overtime loss to the New York Giants dropped the 5-5 Falcons to .500 for the first time since the fourth game of last season.
The Falcons now need a near miraculous turn of events to catch the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. With their 38-7 win over Tampa Bay, the Saints moved to 10-0 Sunday and now lead the Falcons by five games with six to play.
That leaves the wild card or bust. With two wild card berths at stake, Atlanta trails the Giants (6-4), Green Bay (6-4) and Philadelphia (5-4), which played Chicago later Sunday night. The repercussions at the Meadowlands were explicit.
"This one was painful," defensive end John Abraham said. "We definitely have to turn it around from here."
If they slip much more, there are three four-win teams – San Francisco Carolina and the Bears before their Sunday night game – trying to jump over them. More importantly, the loss to the Giants before 78,491 fans gave them the coveted head-to-head tie-breaker if the two teams somehow end up with the same record at the end of the season.
"I don't think we are completely out of it," Abraham said. "We still have an opportunity to be up there. We have to continue to try to win. It's definitely an uphill battle from here, but we have to keep on trucking."
Trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Falcons put together a strong second half behind the passing of quarterback Matt Ryan. They rallied to tie the game 31-31 with 28 seconds to play on a terrific 11-yard touchdown snatch by Tony Gonzalez.
Ryan, without Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner in the lineup, clearly came out of his slump. After throwing 10 interceptions in the previous five games, he didn't throw one against the Giants, despite a withering pass rush.
With Turner inactive with a high right ankle sprain, Jason Snelling turned in a two-touchdown performance as his replacement.
But the Giants won the key overtime coin toss and marched right down for the winning field goal, Tynes' 36-yarder coming just 3:54 into the extra period.
The day contained some of the recurring themes during this 1-4 descent. Falcon miscues held them back again.
There was another missed field goal by Jason Elam, a dropped touchdown pass by Michael Jenkins and continued weak play by the secondary, which gave up seven plays of 20-yards or more. They now have given up 49 so-called "explosive" plays this season.
The most painful was quarterback Eli Manning's key 29-yard completion in overtime to Mario Manningham with Brent Grimes covering, moving the Giants into field goal range.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith didn't absolve the coaching staff from it's miscues either, which included getting caught with 12-men on the field in the first half.
Elam's field goal could have tied the game up early at 10-10. It was his sixth miss of the season, matching the total he missed in his last two seasons combined.
"I feel like I'm hitting the ball real well and it just hasn't come around for me the last few weeks," Elam said.
Jenkins had his hands on an apparent touchdown pass that would have closed the gap to 24-21. But the Falcons had to settle for a field goal, which made it 24-17 with 1:57 left in the third quarter.
"I kind of had it and then tried to catch it again," Jenkins said. "It came out after that but I should have made that play."
Grimes had an interception early in the game and certainly wasn't the only defensive back who had a tough day as Manning threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns. But he was in pretty good position on the key overtime reception by Manningham.
"He threw it to the back shoulder and I was outside," Grimes said. "I tried to go underneath him and make a play on the ball, but I lost my footing. I didn't make the play when I needed to."
If there was any relief, the Falcons just completed a grueling scheduling crunch, when four of their last six games, including the one against the Giants, came against teams coming off their bye weeks. Now they return to the Georgia Dome, where they are 4-0, for three consecutive games against Tampa Bay, Philadelphia (with Michael Vick) and then New Orleans.
"We've got six games left," Ryan said. "A little six-game season. We are still in very good position. We'd like to be a little better off. Everybody would. But we still have a lot of football ahead of us."
Despite the defeat, Smith thought his team showed some mettle by battling back to force overtime.
"I know that our guys are a little bit road weary at this point in time," Smith said. "We've got three games at home and it starts with Tampa Bay. I told them to come in on Wednesday with a positive attitude and let's get ready to right the ship and getting on the winning trail."
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