Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan fumbles the ball after a miscommunication with running back Devonta Freeman, one of four Falcons’ turnovers in a 23-20 overtime loss to Tampa Bay Sunday at the Georgia Dome. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Falcons may be 6-2 but don’t look like it

In their quest to convince the doubting masses that there was substance to their lofty 6-1 start, the Falcons instead fell from their perch Sunday. Head first. Into slop.

They played Tampa Bay, one of the NFL’s worst teams, only because the NFL hasn’t dropped them into the Sun Belt despite a cumulative 8-30 record since 2013 entering Sunday. The Falcons didn’t have to be great to win Sunday. They just had to be moderately effective, even semi-coordinated.

Instead, we witnessed this:

  • A rolling snap by the starting center from the opponent’s 4-yard-line for a turnover, which for all we know may be in the playbook given that has happened twice this season. (Mike Person and James Stone have one each. Meanwhile, center Joe Hawley, who was cut, was on the Tampa Bay sideline.)
  • Indecision by quarterback Matt Ryan and/or confusion with running back Devonta Freeman. Ryan reached out to hand off the ball, then changed his mind and tried to pull it back on a run-pass option, only to have the ball wind up on the turf. (Roddy White: “They were kinda fighting over the ball.”)
  • Five trips into the red zone in the first three and a half quarters that resulted in two turnovers, two field goals and only one touchdown.
  • Four turnovers total, leading to all 20 Tampa Bay points in regulation. That makes 12 turnovers in the last four games. That means the only thing the offense is missing is an elephant, a zebra and the 37 clowns piling into the Volkswagen.
  • Eleven penalties that exceeded the length of the field (124 yards)

The Falcons lost 23-20 in overtime. They lost to a bad team whose head coach, Lovie Smith, committed one of the all-time coaching blunders late in the final two minutes, only to have his defense and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston bail him out.

The Falcons are 6-2. Feel free to second-guess their legitimacy as NFC contenders this week.

“What’s going on? I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you,” White said.

“We’ve caused this,” Julio Jones said.

The problem isn’t that the Falcons’ can’t move the ball. They had 496 yards Sunday, which should be enough to win any game and sometimes two games. Ryan made some nice throws and finished with some fat numbers: 37-of-45 for 397 yards. But his mistakes continue to be big ones — like the interception in the first half when he tried to force the ball to a well-covered Jacob Tamme and the botched play with Freeman.

“It’s a tough read between he and the back because it’s really a run play but Matt has the option to pass it,” White said. “You can’t really fault Free on that because he tried to latch onto the ball and Matt tried to take it back.”

That does not sound like a well-functioning offense.

Three of the Falcons’ four turnovers came on the “plus” side of the field. As Ryan said, “That’s directly taking points off the board.”

Ryan banged his head on the turf in the second quarter and allowed he was stung briefly. (His interception came a few plays later.) But he denied the hit had a lingering effective and also defended the playcalling of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, putting the blame on himself and players.

In short, the Falcons just stunk again.

“Kyle has done a great job for us, putting us in a good position all year,” Ryan said. “When it comes to the red zone, your execution has to be very precise and we haven’t been as precise as we need to be, whether it’s me making a throw or all of us being on the same page, being together.”

They’re not. The Falcons rallied from a 20-3 deficit, thanks in part to Smith. On fourth-and-1 from the Bucs’ 40 and leading 20-13 with two minutes left, he opted to go for it — despite knowing a punt would force the Falcons to go 80 yards (at least) to tie it. And the Falcons didn’t have any timeouts left. But Smith said go and Winston got buried for no gain. Five plays and with 17 seconds left, the Falcons were in the end zone on an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jones.

“I would make that call 10 out of 10 times,” Smith said later.

He would lose the game at least nine out of 10 times. This was the exception.

Tampa Bay kicked a field goal in overtime. The Falcons were stuffed on their drive. They were left with their second loss in the last three games and we were left wondering how good this team really is.

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