The Falcons got jobbed but did themselves proud

Sometimes you play your guts out and deserve to win, but a flag stays in a zebra’s back pocket and you lose. Had pass interference been called against Richard Sherman, the Falcons would have been within Matt Bryant’s range of one of the most stirring regular-season victories in franchise annals. As is, every Atlanta player, coach and fan has cause to feel burned – apologies in advance– by Sherman.

So much good stuff happened Sunday that it’s a shame this game, technically a 26-24 Falcons loss, will be recalled for one incompletion. But there it is. A great cornerback grabbed a great receiver’s arm and got away with it. Stuff happens.

Of the fateful non-call, Falcons coach Dan Quinn went into non-quote mode: “We’ll look at it (on tape) and see where it goes … It’s a 50-50 ball. But a game never comes down to one play.”

Coaches are forever saying that, and mostly they’re right. This time, no.

This careening game – the Falcons went from 17-3 down against the NFL’s best defense to 24-17 ahead in less time than it says to say “Walla Walla, Washington” – was there to be won when Matt Ryan moved left and threw long for Julio Jones on fourth-and-10 with 1:30 remaining. It seemed for a nanosecond that Jones had snagged the ball with one hand. (He does stuff like that.) Further viewings revealed that the ball hit the turf and, more important, that one hand was all Julio had at his disposal, Sherman having pinned the other arm against the receiver’s body.

And that, finally, was that. The No. 1 offense had stacked 362 yards and 24 points on the No. 1 defense, which might have been enough – if not for a turnover early and late. Cliff Avril’s sack/strip of Matt Ryan led to Seattle stealing an early march, and Jones’ failure to hold Ryan’s pass inside the final four minutes became an Earl Thomas interception, which would spawn Steven Hauschka’s go-ahead field goal with 1:57 left.

For a half, the Falcons were in danger of being overrun. They mustered 86 yards and three points in the first half, prompting us press-box wags to tut-tut, “Knew it — good pitching stops good hitting.” But the third quarter was such an astonishment that it made us savants wonder if these Falcons mightn’t be the best team in the NFC if not the whole wide world.

They outgained Seattle 252 yards to 29 in the third quarter. They scored touchdowns on drives of 75, 79 and 97 yards. On the Seahawks’ bench, the fierce Sherman was raging at the indignity of it all. “We’re a championship team,” he would say, but his crew was being undressed by a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2012.

In January 2013, the Falcons and Seahawks played this game — a playoff game — in reverse: The Falcons got way ahead, the visitors nosed ahead near the end and then Bryant converted from 49 yards to win it. The same Bryant was again positioned to be the decider but never got the chance.

Said Jones of Sherman: “He grabbed my right side and spun me around.”

Said Sherman: “I thought there was offensive interference on a lot of plays today. It was a game where they let us play.”

There can be no shame in losing a game like this to an opponent like this, but the Falcons’ faces spoke of an opportunity grasped but not quite seized. Asked if he felt his team had actually won, Quinn said: “No. But I feel like we battled.”

They did. In many ways, this game — again, officially a loss — told us more about these Birds than any of their four victories. It told us they could stand toe to toe with the team that has been the NFC’s best since that January 2013 playoff loss, told us they could fight the good fight and come within an official’s decision of winning. If there’s such a thing as a rousing loss in professional football, this was it.