Falcons can fool you into thinking they’re good before they fold

122020 Atlanta: Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown gets past Atlanta Falcons cornerback Tyler Hall for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Bucs won 31-27. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

122020 Atlanta: Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown gets past Atlanta Falcons cornerback Tyler Hall for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Bucs won 31-27. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

An optimist can build a case for why the Falcons aren’t far away from being good again. They just need to do it before the end of the games. The Falcons had several moments Sunday in which they seemed to be better than their losing record, before they inevitably revealed that they are exactly as they appear.

The Falcons are good enough to get a big lead against even a tough foe like the Buccaneers. They are not good enough to hold it, which is the point. The Falcons lost 31-27. They led 17-0 at halftime and were outscored 31-10 after it.

The Falcons gave back the 17-point lead with 11 minutes left in the game. They went back ahead by a field goal, but you know how it ends. Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown streaked for a 46-yard touchdown that put the visitors ahead for good.

The Falcons have lost 10 games. They had the lead in eight of those losses. They were up 20 points on the Cowboys in the first quarter before fading. They were up 16 points on the Bears in the third quarter and couldn’t win. Pretty much everyone expects the Falcons to fold, a list that may might include the Falcons themselves, and they usually do.

That’s why their 17-0 lead against the Bucs never seemed secure. It’s why that go-ahead field goal with eight minutes left felt like a temporary reprieve.

“We’ve got to answer, and we did,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. “But we’ve got to continue to answer. When those guys get hot, we’ve got to get hotter.”

It’s obvious what the Falcons must do when opponents whittle down their leads. The issue is they can’t do it. Dan Quinn is gone, but their come-from-ahead identity remains. Tom Brady was very good on Sunday, but it doesn’t take a legend so snatch back leads from the Falcons.

Brown’s TD was Tampa Bay’s fifth consecutive score after they’d punted on their first four full possessions. The Falcons went three-and-out on three of their five second-half possessions. Their last chance to score ended with four feeble plays that netted seven yards.

The Falcons (4-10) will finish with a losing record for the third consecutive year. They’ve lost 10 games for the first time since 2014, Mike Smith’s last as coach. The Super Bowl collapse against Brady’s Patriots feels like another era now. The Falcons are a capped-out team that needs more player talent and a permanent coaching staff that can properly deploy them.

And yet there’s an argument for why they aren’t so bad. Only four of their losses were by a margin of more than one score, and three were by a field goal or less. Before Sundays’ games the Falcons were the NFL’s only team with a losing record and a positive point differential (plus-6). They are still plus-2 on the season.

A losing record with more points scored than given up usually suggests bad luck in close games. That might not be the case for the Falcons considering their pattern of finding ways to lose. And it’s possible to take that line of thinking too far. Every year there are a handful of losing NFL teams that can say things would be different if not for a few bad breaks.

The next Falcons GM can’t indiscriminately tear down the roster. The team’s salary-cap situation won’t allow that even if they wanted to do it. But there are good Falcons players under contract for next season at reasonable salaries. One of them, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, has shown his full value with Julio Jones sidelined.

Another reassuring sign for the Falcons: Ryan bounced back from his worst game of the season with one of his best. Ryan as awful at the Chargers. Against the Bucs, Ryan had 34 completions for 356 yards and three TDs with no interceptions. He did it without the backing of an effective running game.

Brady was just better when it mattered most. After halftime Brady was 21 for 29 for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Brady, 43, made some throws that suggest he may have one last playoff run left if the Bucks (9-5) make it. Unlike Ryan, his team’s defense kept quickly giving him the ball back for more chances.

Brady didn’t have to work hard for his final touchdown. Brown ended up covered by cornerback Tyler Hall, a rookie who wasn’t drafted. The outcome was predictable.

“He got put in a bad matchup and got beat,” Morris said of Hall. “That’s on us.”

The Falcons had two more chances to score. The first ended with linebacker Devin White’s second sack. Grady Jarrett, another good Falcons player to build around, sacked Brady to throw Tampa Bay’s next possession off schedule. The Falcons got the ball back with 2:44 to play but went nowhere before turning it over on downs.

Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun knocks Buccaneers Tom Brady to the turf during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Falcons had blown another lead. They built it with Ryan looking sharp and his receivers, especially Ridley, getting open. The Falcons allowed Tampa Bay past midfield just once in four first-half possessions. The Falcons sacked Brady twice and made him rush several throws.

Everything changed for the Falcons in the second half, as they often do. The Bucs started picking up blitzes and Brady got the ball out quicker. The extra pass rushers they sent at Ryan started getting home more often. Two third-down sacks by White scuttled drives.

Tampa Bay came out of the locker room for the second half and marched to a touchdown without facing a third down. The Falcons responded with a 75-yard TD drive that starred Ridley, who finished 10 catches for 163 yards and a score.

The Bucs were down three scores again They drove the field for another score with Brady’ passes of 26 and 24 yards to Mike Evans covering most of the 75 yards. The Falcons went three-and-out on their next possession when Ridley and Ryan couldn’t connect on third down. The Bucs responded with another touchdown drive.

Now the Bucs were down just 24-21 and third quarter wasn’t yet over. Another Falcons three-and-out was followed with a Bucs field goal that tied the score 24-24 with 11 minutes to go. Uh oh, here the Falcons go again.

But wait! The Falcons went ahead 27-24 when Younghoe Koo, perhaps their most reliable player, kicked a 52-yard field goal with less than nine minutes left. That was after Ridley nearly caught a TD pass in the end zone. Safety Antoine Winfield knocked away Ryan’s pass at the last moment, and Smith sacked Ryan again on the next play.

Four plays later Brown scored the winning TD.

“We had a handful of chances to make some plays in second half,” Ryan said. “If it goes a little different, we have momentum.”

That’s true. It also doesn’t matter. It almost always goes the same for the Falcons when they have a big lead. They can look better than they seem until their true nature inevitably is revealed once again.

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