Reality check: The Falcons aren’t good enough to mess up and win

For long stretches Sunday, the Falcons seemed the better team. They outgained the favored Chargers 145-8 over the first 14 minutes and eight seconds. Midway through the second half, they had more yards rushing than the visitors did passing, which should have augured well. If you can’t stop the run, you can’t stop anything.

The Falcons stopped themselves in a second half they should have owned. Drake London had the ball ripped away by Khalil Mack at the Chargers’ 5. Younghoe Koo, who doesn’t miss often, missed from 50 yards. The Falcons fashioned drives of 62, 53 and 48 yards – drives that spanned 13:45 – and scored seven points.

ExplorePhotos: Chargers edge Falcons on late field goal

That gave the Chargers a chance and, even in a weakened state, they took it. They mustered only two field goals over the second half, but they sufficed. The first tied it. The second, at 0:00, won it.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith was caught on the overhead screen mouthing words – one word in particular – as he exited the field: Having composed himself, he told the media: “It was a pretty short game.” (The Falcons had eight possessions, four each half.) “At the end, they made one play.”

That play came after the Falcons appeared to have saved themselves. Smith burned his final timeout with 46 seconds left. The Chargers faced third-and-4 at the Falcons’ 20. One more run, one shortish kick (albeit by Cameron Dicker, replacement kicker) and they’d win. But wait.

Austin Ekeler took a handoff and lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground. Defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham grabbed it and fled down the sideline. He held the ball for 19 yards. Then he dropped it. The Chargers fell on it. Yikes.

ExploreChargers beat Falcons 20-17 at the buzzer

No longer in field-goal range, the Chargers had three fresh downs and 34 seconds. They needed only one play. Justin Herbert hit Joshua Palmer on a slant. (Reminder: The Falcons have the NFL’s worst pass defense.) The Chargers were again in field-goal range. This time they got it right.

Said Smith of Graham: “He scooped the ball up. The ball slipped out. The ball bounces funny sometimes.”

Thus did the Falcons fail, for the third time in five weeks, to nose above .500. They’re still in first place – even in the NFC South, somebody has to be – but they couldn’t consolidate the gains made in the careening victory over Carolina. And, once again, we saw the limitations of Marcus Mariota.

He completed 12 of 23 passes for 129 yards. He averaged 5.6 yards per pass, which isn’t good, though Herbert, who’s considered a franchise quarterback, averaged 5.7. To be fair, Herbert was without receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Mariota still had first-round talents Kyle Pitts and London. Mariota’s longest completion was for 24 yards to Tyler Allgeier, a running back.

The game’s biggest play was a Mariota incompletion. Dicker kicked the tying field goal with 5:27 left. Having spent most of the day shoving the NFL’s sixth-worst run defense backward, the Falcons figured to do more of the same, eating up yards and seconds until Koo won it at the end. First down saw Allgeier gain 2 yards. Second-and-8 saw Mariota, off play-action, throw long for Pitts, who’d whooshed past two defenders. Mariota overthrew him.

“Those are the reads,” Smith said. “They gave us a look. They had to bring everybody up to stop the run.”

Third-and-8: Mariota’s pass for London was incomplete. For the only time in the second half, the Falcons went three-and-out. They didn’t run another play. They lost 20-17.

Said Mariota: “I thought we had (receivers) winning on the back end. I just didn’t make some throws.”

Said Smith, recapping the sequence: “First-down run. Second-down shot. We didn’t hit it. Third down, they cover us. Obviously, you take a risk when you take a shot, but we felt it was a shot worth taking.”

As resourceful as they’d been to get to 4-4, the Falcons remain a team of clear limitations. Still, we saw again that, even against a superior opponent, they give themselves a chance. And it’ll be a while – until Christmas Eve, to be precise – until they face another, at least on their record, superior opponent.

We shouldn’t even think about giving up on this team. The season wasn’t lost Sunday. Even if you were disappointed by the result, you’ve got to give the Falcons their due. They play wildly fascinating games. I mean, are you not entertained?