An electrifying touchdown drive to take the lead late in the fourth quarter serving as a prelude to the defense breaking down and surrendering the game-winning score.
On a day when the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl squad was honored – a team that escaped the stranglehold of its woebegone history – the Falcons filed away another entry that looked like so many from their past. Coach Arthur Smith’s team was on the precipice of gaining firm control of the NFC South, winning a third consecutive game, getting above .500 and taking a large step towards their first playoff berth since 2017.
That’s not how it ended, of course.
The Falcons and the precipice. You might as well forward their mail there.
A game that scarcely played out like it was expected to still somehow culminated with a familiar outcome – Buccaneers 29, Falcons 25. The most meaningful game of Smith’s three-year tenure came to an end with the Falcons three yards shy of victory Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We had plenty of opportunities in all three phases,” Smith said.
Give the Falcons, Smith and his coaching staff credit for this. With a depleted lineup deprived of several key starters, they enabled quarterback Desmond Ridder to throw for a career-high 347 yards, limited likely Hall of Fame wide receiver Mike Evans to a single catch and for most of the game kept the Buccaneers offense in neutral.
“It’s our job to problem solve and find ways to go win,” Smith said.
Rookie cornerback Clark Phillips III, lightly-tested center Ryan Neuzil and practice squad call-up offensive tackle Tyler Vrabel were among those thrust into action who were equal to the moment.
That wasn’t ultimately what did in the Falcons. Injuries didn’t direct Younghoe Koo’s two errant field-goal tries off course, nor did they sail Ridder’s third-and-goal pass to running back Bijan Robinson out of the rookie’s reach on the Falcons’ opening drive, leading to a field goal instead of a touchdown. They didn’t compel Ridder to hold onto the ball too long on a dropback in his own end zone, leading to a strip-sack and a safety.
The Falcons did that – and so much more – to themselves.
“Six points, those are crucial swings,” said Koo, who prior to Sunday held the NFL’s all-time lead in field-goal accuracy. “Guys played their (butts) off and I feel like I cost them (Sunday).”
The hero of the Falcons’ win in Tampa Bay in October was 1-for-3 Sunday, ending a string of 19 consecutive makes and dropping him into third all-time behind Baltimore’s Justin Tucker and Kansas City’s Harrison Butker (of Westminster and Georgia Tech).
When Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis III jumped a Ridder first-quarter pass to Robinson for an interception deep in the Falcons end – a play that led to a Tampa Bay touchdown – the culprit was a missed block that enabled Davis to get to the ball. One of the players on that side, wide receiver Van Jefferson, called it a miscommunication between him and tight end Kyle Pitts.
“We made a mistake and it cost us an interception,” Jefferson said.
When the Falcons came out of halftime down 12-10 and had three consecutive possessions to take the lead, poor execution and a curious reliance on the passing game led to three consecutive punts that put extra stress on a defense pieced together with duct tape and a wad of gum. For good measure, the Falcons punted a fourth consecutive time following a Buccaneers touchdown that elevated their lead to 19-10 before the offense got untracked.
“I think we lost the game, a division game, and that’s it,” safety Jessie Bates III said.
In Tampa Bay’s first eight possessions, the Buccaneers scored twice – a field goal after a 38-yard drive and a touchdown on a possession that started eight yards away from the goal line. That’s commendable for a unit that was missing its top two defensive tackles (Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata), a linebacker (Nate Landman) and a cornerback (Jeff Okudah) to injury. Defensive tackle Kentavius Street’s shoulder injury in the third quarter may have finally done in the depleted Falcons defense, which gave up 17 points in Tampa Bay’s final four possessions with Street out.
The Falcons could have taken a two-game lead in the NFC South with four games to play and a tiebreaker over the Buccaneers (by virtue of their season sweep) in their pocket. Instead, the two teams are tied with New Orleans at 6-7 and the Falcons have ceded control, though slightly, to Tampa Bay. They remain the playoff chase because of their membership in the lowly NFC South.
It was not a show befitting the 1998 Falcons, who were honored between the first and second quarters. If you’re wondering, at this point of the season, that team was 11-2 and on what would become an 11-game winning streak.
The magnifying glass again returns its gaze to Smith. His teams play hard. The defense is legitimately effective. The offense, in a loss, scored well above its season averages for yards and points, and that was ultimately without three starting offensive linemen.
But in the most critical game of his regime, he could not conjure a winning solution. Mistakes sabotaged the performance. The scoreless third quarter robbed the team of a chance to gain control of the game. What could have been a breakthrough was instead one more faith-torching kick in the gut.