The 2020 Falcons are the champs of coming close

A season of crushing losses is winding down with another run of crushing losses. Thing is, they’re not so crushing anymore. If you care about draft position — and if you care about the Falcons, you’d better — the past two weeks have been, dare we say, almost perfect. Two big efforts against big-name opponents, two calming Matt Ryan performances after the atrocity against the Chargers, two games that could have gone either way but, in the end, went the way of all Falcons games.

In other words, two great losses.

We’re not being sarcastic or sardonic. We’re being soberly pragmatic. Had the Falcons won the past two weeks, they’d still be going nowhere. Had they won these two games, they’d have fallen from the 2021 draft’s top 10. As it stands, they’re No. 3. That’s huge.

The weirdest part about this beyond-weird season is that the Falcons might well be the best 4-11 team in NFL annals. They’ve been outscored by one point on the season. Of those 11 losses, eight have come by one-score margins. The aggregate difference in those eight games is 27 points. That’s an average of 3.4 — basically a field goal.

The only reason Sunday’s game against the reigning Super Bowl champs didn’t extend into overtime was, as interim coach Raheem Morris said, “we missed the kick with out Pro Bowl kicker.” If Younghoe Koo, who has made nearly every kick this year, tried 100 times to kick a ball that behaved the way this one did — starting out dead center, winding up two inches outside the right upright — he couldn’t do it.

Those of a statistical inclination will tell you that the biggest indication of a losing team that’s primed for a rebound in its next season is one that just lost a disproportionate number of one-score games. One-score games are usually a coin flip. These Falcons have lost eight of 10, and the eight have been almost evenly distributed. Under Dan Quinn, the Falcons played five times and lost three close games. That’s 60 percent. Under Morris, they’ve played 10 times and lost five close games. That’s 50 percent.

Said Morris after the latest L: “The biggest takeaway is that we can play with anybody.”

Normally you’d LOL at a 4-11 coach who suggested such a thing, but Sunday’s game seemed, not to sound sophomoric, a classic case of the wrong team winning. (That said, could we ever call these fallible Falcons the right team?) They held the Chiefs under 400 yards, something that hadn’t happened since Nov. 1. They held the Chiefs under 20 points, something that hadn’t happened since Oct. 6, 2019.

They held the incomparable Patrick Mahomes to a passer rating of 79.5, his lowest since Nov. 18, 2019. (Asked what the Falcons did to addle Mahomes, Morris said: “None of your business.”) They limited the quicksilver Tyreek Hill to one catch of more than 20 yards, that in the first quarter. The Chiefs scored only on their fourth, seventh and ninth possessions, which marks a win for any defense.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

It isn’t often — actually, it’s more like never — that Mahomes looks confused. He was confused by the Falcons, which makes no sense until we recall that this same post-Quinn defense, as coordinator by Jeff Ulbrich, gave Derek Carr fits and held a team quarterbacked by the GOAT Tom Brady to no first-half points. (Second was another matter, but second halves with the Falcons invariably are.)

They’d have won in Kansas City had the rookie A.J. Terrell held what would have been the Falcons’ third interception. They’d have won if Kendall Sheffield hadn’t allowed Demarcus Robinson, the Chiefs’ fifth-best receiver, run past him on the next snap. Ryan executed a vintage Matty Ice drive to bring the Falcons within cinch tying distance at the end — one of the greatest moments of his distinguished career came when he managed to propel the ball forward after being blindsided by Frank Clark on what should have been a strip/sack — except that Koo somehow missed.

Said Morris again: “I think we are close. I think we have the people.”

Said Ryan: “This should help us to learn what we’re capable of, how fine the line is between being 14-1 and 4-11. We have to grow up.”

And this is where it gets tricky. If you’re Arthur Blank, do you look at 4-11 and think, “We’re nowhere close to being close”? Or do you look at this tonnage of near-misses and say, “If we can go toe-to-toe with the Chiefs, we don’t need to start over?” And, if indeed the high-profile owner decides his team isn’t that far away, does he say, “I’m sticking with Raheem Morris?”

With one game to go, here’s what we know for show: No team in NFL history has been more creative in its losing than the 2020 Falcons. Sometimes the only cure for a losing team is to take it apart and begin anew. But when there comes a game like Sunday’s, even the pragmatists among us are given pause.