For wont of one (bleeping) first down, Falcons lose

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan confer in the final minutes against the Washington Football Team Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan confer in the final minutes against the Washington Football Team Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton /

One week ago, against another like-mindedly middling team, the Falcons were down seven with less than 13 minutes to play and the situation suited them. They scored 10 points on their final two possessions and took out the New York Giants on a last-gasp field goal. True, much of the NFL is bigger than the biggest Broadway show. Falcons-Giants in 2021 is dinner theater. But there can be stirring endings even on that scale.

Sunday, back home against yet one more opponent with multiple faults and not so much as a real team name to call its own, the Falcons led by eight with less than 15 to go. In that scenario they froze like a squirrel in heavy traffic.

Taylor Heinicke, a local kid who played at Collins Hill, quarterbacked the Washington Football Team to the day’s last 12 points. Didn’t matter what kind of pass he heaved — off his back foot, eyes seemingly closed, one better thrown to the account manager in the 10th row — his guy caught it and a Falcons defender didn’t. Meanwhile, the Falcons offense went soft, way on the other side of al dente. And for the wont of getting a first down on their final possession with the lead — all together now: Just one more stinkin’ first down — the Falcons fell. And The Team wins, 34-30.

So, here’s the thing. If the new coach wants to take notes, this is where Arthur Smith may want to take out his binder and his mechanical pencil:

For the time being, until they get a lot brawnier, he and his guys need to always play like they are behind. They are the rebuilding Falcons, after all, and will have plenty of experience with that predicament. And when they’re not, like Sunday, they must pretend that they are. For the normal rules for milking a lead in the last quarter don’t apply to them, not in light of how this last one played out.

Smith, who handled the third loss in his first four games with a calm steadiness that will help his sanity in the long run, put Sunday’s loss simply: “Obviously frustrating when you don’t finish games. We had multiple opportunities to go win that game, and we didn’t.”

Wasted this day was a three-touchdown performance by the Falcons Cordarrelle Patterson, whose versatility defies pigeon-holing at any one position. Acquired for his special teams expertise, he has been the one great pleasant surprise for these Falcons. On the depth chart just list him as darn good football player.

This could have been remembered as Patterson’s finest moment, the first multiple-TD game in a nine-year career. He ran through tackles. He soared over defensive backs who seemed much shorter than their official listing.

Instead, he wanted to forget it as soon as possible. “Put this in the past, man,” Patterson said afterward. “I’d take all that back to get a win. We didn’t win, that’s all that matters.”

That would be the same Cordarrelle Patterson — the Falcons leader in rushing and receiving yards who didn’t catch a pass or take a handoff in the entire fourth quarter. The Falcons autopsy of this one may want to address that.

Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson runs for yardage against Washington Football Team defenders for a first down during the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

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Credit: Curtis Compton /

Once the Falcons took that 8-point lead at the start of the final quarter, they did little smartly or well.

Defensively, they were witness to Heinicke taking Washington on touchdown drives of 70 and 76 yards with The Team’s final two possessions. To close the first drive, Heinicke escaped the clutches of Dante Fowler, was tilting backwards with linebacker Foye Oluokun all in his space, and threw a mortar lob into the end zone. His guy, Terry McLaurin, went up and claimed the world’s shortest Hail Mary pass (17 yards) while Falcons defender T.J. Green didn’t make any kind of serious bid for the ball.

“We got to make the plays. They throw you the ball, you got to come down with them,” said Smith, lamenting that play and a couple other possible interceptions that his defenders dropped.

Following that score, the Falcons had 3:52 to kill, or at least a good chunk of that. One lousy first down would have gone far in that noble pursuit. Instead, with punter Cameron Nizialek injured and unable to bail them out, quarterback Matt Ryan handed the ball twice to Mike Davis for a net 1 yard gain, and then threw a dump pass that was sure to fail, gaining but five yards.

“If we want to be the type of football team we want to be, the type of offense we’d like to be, you get in those situations, you want to be able to move the football, burn the clock and get some first downs and end that football game. We didn’t do it,” Ryan confessed.

The Team came back and got in position for a winning field goal, but still not satisfied, Heinicke scrambled left, threw back right across the field to running back J.D. McKissic, who sped 30 yards before leaping into the end zone.

Washington got the extravagant yards they needed. While the tough yards the Falcons required to win Sunday eluded them.

Playing from ahead can be hard, especially when you can’t command the line of scrimmage and rule the clock. Until the Falcons can, they wouldn’t be wrong to play with the mentality that they’re always trailing.