Falcons try to avoid going from 0-1 to off the rails

Panic … 6.25 percent into the season.

The Falcons lost their season opener and now enter a series of games (at Oakland, at New Orleans, home against Carolina, at Denver, at Seattle) that many believe will crush all hopes for making the playoffs by mid-October, before the leaves even change color.

Whether you believe in odds or not, the ballooning numbers in Las Vegas reflect public gloom. The Falcons’ Super Bowl odds in some sports books opened at 33-1 in February, doubled to 66-1 before even their opening loss to Tampa Bay and have grown to 100-1 this week.

The Falcons are trending toward the same betting ZIP code as the Cleveland Browns.

With only one of 16 games played, it seems silly to suggest this season is about to jump the rails. But this is what happens when you live in Atlanta, where the default position, even in good times is, “This won’t last.”

“One loss doesn’t change anything,” one of the newest Falcons, Dwight Freeney, said when asked about losing against the backdrop of a difficult early schedule. “I don’t care where the strength of your schedule is, because as a player, you’re never thinking about the whole entire schedule. You’re thinking about the next game. Regardless if you lose the first game, regardless of who’s coming up, you have to win the second one. That’s your mentality.”

There were problems on both sides of the ball in the 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay (which dropped the Falcons to 1-6 in NFC South Division games under Dan Quinn). Offensively, the line couldn’t get any push in the running game. The result was the league’s second-lowest rushing output of the week: 52 yards (2.36 per carry). Quarterback Matt Ryan had a strong game (334 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions) and there wasn’t much to fault with Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling, but the offense produced only one touchdown in four red zone possessions, mostly because of the running game and penalties.

But Quinn couldn’t understand in the aftermath of the opener why the offense came under such criticism. It was the defense, he believes, that lost the game.

No argument here. The Falcons again lacked a consistent pass rush and failed to produce a sack. Linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., expected to make significant improvement from an unimpressive rookie season, failed to make it onto the stat sheet with so much as a tackle.

The Buccaneers drove to touchdowns on three straight possessions and four out of five in the second and third quarters. Three of Tampa Bay’s five scoring drives were extended by third-down penalties (rookie De’Vondre Campbell, pass interference; Adrian Clayborn, offside; Robert Alford, taunting, concurrent with Kemal Ishmael for defensive holding). Instead of three punts, the Bucs scored 17 points on those drives.

Now, we can play what-ifs all day. But the bottom line is, the Falcons aren’t making plays to win games, they are making plays to lose them.

“I’m not going to base the points allowed in one game on what we can be,” Quinn said the other day.

Nor should he. But what gives the Falcons confidence that they’re better than what we saw last week? Because even with 15 more games, there isn’t much margin for error. Oakland, New Orleans, Denver and Seattle are four of the most difficult places for a road team to play, and Carolina looks like a Super Bowl contender for the second straight season.

“We love a challenge,” said Jonathan Babineaux.

This from a man who’s covered with emotional scars as a 12th-year Falcon.

Defensive end Derrick Shelby was asked about fans fleeing the ship.

“That’s why they’re fans,” he said. “They’re not really all in. You can’t let it get to you. Just let it be.”

What gives him confidence about this team?

“As poorly as we played in some areas, we still had a chance to win. And if you can play poorly and still have a chance to win, you have to believe in the team that you have.”

At this point, even just one game into the season, there aren’t a ton of believers outside of the locker room. An 0-1 start likely feels different in Atlanta than it does in Carolina or Arizona. History will do that.

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