Bradley’s Buzz: On a rainy night, the Falcons were a damp squib

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Falcons aren’t doomed – they could again be tied atop their division by 12:30 p.m. Sunday, though the top of the NFC South isn’t to be confused with the summit of the Matterhorn – but they’ve reached the point all overachievers do. They’re starting to see that doing better than expected isn’t the same as doing well. They’re 4-6, having lost two games in five days, having scored 32 points over 120 minutes.

ExploreFalcons have a long way to go after loss in Carolina

They’ve yielded an NFL-worst 250 points. They’re next-to-last in yards allowed. They’re 26th in yards gained. They’re 30th in yards passing. On a rainy night in Charlotte, they were beaten by a team that has fired its coach, benched its high-profile quarterback and traded its best player. They trailed by 10 at the half. They lost 25-15.

In two games over 12 days against Carolina, they’ve been outgained by 114 yards. Marcus Mariota has thrown three interceptions and been sacked seven times. It took a missed PAT in regulation and a missed field-goal try in overtime for the Falcons to prevail in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 30. Thursday’s game saw Younghoe Koo miss two PATs. It also saw Mariota nearly throw a pick-6 while lying on his back.

It took a lot of coaching to push the Falcons to 4-4. This being the NFL, the effect of coaching can lessen with time. Every team has iPads. Every team sees what you’re doing. Every team knows the way to beat the Falcons is to make Mariota throw. He has been mostly OK, numbers-wise – he’s ninth in ESPN’s QBR – but he’s 27th in completion percentage. Kyle Pitts was targeted eight times Thursday; he caught two passes. Drake London caught five passes, the longest for 14 yards.

On cue, the TV crew flashed a graphic showing Mariota was 1-5 in games when his team needed a touchdown. (It’s a well-spaced 1-5; before this season, he hadn’t started a game since 2019.) He’s 1-6 now. The Falcons’ tying bid, such as it was: running play for minus-1; sack for minus-7; no-chance throw to Olamide Zaccheaus over the middle; sack for minus-7.

Nobody knows Mariota’s limitations better than Arthur Smith. The two had history with the Titans. Smith has designed an offense that de-emphasizes the forward pass. It has worked about as well as such an offense can. Still, you can only run around your backhand for so long. We saw this running game buy them a clear deep shot against the Chargers; we saw Mariota overthrow Pitts by five yards.

ExploreMarcus Mariota: ‘I was trying to create a spark'

The Falcons have seven games remaining, six against opponents under .500. They still have a playoff chance, though the odds shrank with last night’s loss. (Through 10 games, the Falcons have been favored only against Carolina.) FiveThirtyEight assigns a 19 percent chance of qualifying for postseason, 14 percent for winning their division. Losing in Charlotte leaves the Falcons low on tiebreakers: They’re 1-3 in division play, having lost to all three South brethren.

Let’s be honest, though. This playoff talk – much of it bandied about in this space – has always been aspirational. The Falcons aren’t that good. Were they in any other division, they might be another loss from deploying Desmond Ridder. Smith was asked Thursday if he considered using the rookie. His response: “I was trying to win the game.”

He also said: “I know that’s a popular narrative.”

Smith has done well to bleed four wins out of this team. Thursday marked the Falcons’ first bad loss. But, having viewed last night’s tilt through the magic of Amazon Prime, I wonder what his parents must think. He attended Georgetown Prep – tuition: $56,665 – and then North Carolina. He’s a smart guy who received a quality education, but darned if those TV cameras don’t make it seem as if his vocabulary runs to one word.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and collated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Bradley’s Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d be obliged if you’d give it a try.

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