Was there ever any doubt these Falcons would blow this lead?

092720 Atlanta: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan walks off the field after throwing an interception to Chicago Bears Tashaun Gipson during the final minutes of the fourth quarter Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Sunday began with such rosy promise for the Falcons. On their first play from scrimmage, a bold and beautiful thing, Matt Ryan hit Calvin Ridley in stride on a 63-yard connection that would set them up for an opening statement touchdown versus Chicago. Proving both that this team was surely of a mind to win and that one aging arm could still throw the deep ball without the aid of a watermelon launcher.

... And yet, the worm of doubt began to burrow. How would the Falcons waste this Sunday?

The start of the second half was no less auspicious, the Falcons going for a drive that was just a convertible and Tom Petty mix CD short of perfect. Seventy-five yards they went in a blend of pass and run, Todd Gurley gliding in from 10 yards out for a touchdown and a 23-10 Falcons lead.

... And still, there was no shaking a feeling of dread, because this Falcons team plays with a lead as a racoon would with a cocked and loaded gun. A self-inflicted wound is likely.

The lead would grow to 16. The Falcons would benefit from two end zone reviews that stripped Chicago of scores. The Bears failed late on a two-point conversion that kept them two-scores in arrears with just a little more than six minutes to play.

.... Still, when it seemed there would be no way for the Falcons to surrender this lead, you kept playing doomsday scenarios in your head.

And sure enough, one of them came true: Chicago 30, Falcons 26. In the bank is the Falcons’ first 0-3 start since Bobby Petrino’s hit-and-run 2007 campaign.

It is one thing for the casual observer to work under such a dark cloud, but quite another for the authors of collapse to do the same.

While watching the fourth quarter Sunday — as the Falcons frittered possession after possession, burning just 2:50 off the game clock in four of them — it was impossible not to believe that worm of doubt had chewed its way into every helmet and coaches’ headset. They played and coached like a team looking for a way to lose.

Disclaimers were plentiful afterwards, some of them even quite rational and measured.

“There’s plenty out there for us, we just got to finish,” said Dan Quinn, who may or may not be the Falcons head coach by the time you get around to reading this.

“We found probably the worst two ways you can lose a football game,” defensive lineman Dante Fowler said, referring back to a 20-point lead lost to the Cowboys a week ago, ultimately decided on an onside kick that the Falcons treated like a downed wasp nest. “It can only go up from here; it can only get better from here.”

“It’s not the end of the world,” Gurley assured. Of course, he’s right. We have seen so much else this year more indicative of the apocalypse.

“Not even a quarter of the season is done, it’s only Week 3,” he said.

But Gurley did sound a very proper alarm, saying of the Falcons need to step it up, “If we don’t, [expletive] is gonna look like this each week and that’s not who we are.”

Falcons players are stunned as Chicago Bears defensive back Tashaun Gipson Sr. (left) celebrates with Khalil Mack after intercepting a Matt Ryan in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to secure a 30-26 come-from-behind win over Falcons Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There’s the rub, because after just three weeks, the identity of this team centers on one of the vilest insults you can hurl at a competitor: That of a choker.

It would be the cruelest slander if only they’d stop inventing more gruesome ways to kill a lead.

Beyond the physical, there is something rotting in the collective mindset of these Falcons. It is early yet, but might we be witnessing in these Pandemic Falcons of 2020 a team with the most debilitating allergy to winning as any seen in these afflicted parts?

Oh, there have been countless local squads of lesser talent than these blighted Birds. Plenty of teams with woeful records and zero prospects. But this one, because of a singular commitment to turning seeming victory into a crushing loss is in the early running for infamy.

Even as injuries mounted, the Falcons did plenty good Sunday, but were unable to bring any of it to bear when it mattered most.

There is something very wrong when Ryan goes 0-for-7 over a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter, and his last throw is errant and intercepted. When the running game has a fine day (144 yards, and two sizable TD runs) but is abandoned at the end when there is clock to drain. When a defense strings together stops early then yields three fourth-quarter touchdown throws by Nick Foles.

That’s how a team keeps feeding so much cynicism and doubt around it, until that infects the host as well.

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