“This league is weird, man,” Mariota said. “You are going to find yourself in these close games. We’ve just got to do a better job of finding ways to win it.”
In Week 1, the Falcons couldn’t hold a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. They were good until it mattered the most. In Week 2, they couldn’t overcome a three-touchdown deficit in the second half. They were bad until finally making the defending Super Bowl champs work for the win.
In both games, you could find reasons to believe the Falcons could be better than expected. You also could see why they aren’t good enough to be a winning team, at least not yet.
Said coach Arthur Smith: “Obviously, it wasn’t perfect, and we need to break through, but the one thing about our guys no matter what has happened, we’ve got a chance last play to go win it. We will continue to grow. You go through these things.
“It’s painful to lose like that, (by) one possession, but we have the right mindset.”
I can’t argue with that. I didn’t like Atlanta’s defensive plan of playing soft in pass coverage. Mariota had a couple wayward throws that were picked off. But the Falcons could have folded after blowing the big lead against the Saints and then falling way behind on Sunday. Instead, they kept coming at the Rams.
You can say the Rams let up too early. Maybe they did. But that’s a hard case to make when the Falcons made big plays during the rally.
The home team’s lead seemed safe even after the Falcons got the margin down to 31-17. There was just 8:14 left in the game and the Falcons hadn’t stopped the Rams much. Then Troy Andersen blocked a punt that Lorenzo Carter returned 26 yards for a touchdown, Drake London converted the two-point conversion, and suddenly the Rams led by six points with five minutes left.
The Rams got the ball back with 4:57 to play. On third-and-4, quarterback Matthew Stafford completed a pass to Cooper Kupp beyond the first-down marker. Falcons cornerback Darren Hall punched the ball out and recovered it. Just like that, the Falcons were 37 yards from scoring a touchdown to complete the biggest comeback victory in franchise history.
Mariota completed consecutive passes to rookie London to gain a first down at the 21. On third down, he saw Edwards open and drifting toward the end zone. The throw was too high. Mariota’s pass for Cordarrelle Patterson near the end of the first half was off target, too. Patterson tipped it, and Cobie Durant intercepted it for a 51-yard return to set up a Rams touchdown for a 21-3 halftime lead.
“Some of the stuff wasn’t necessarily his fault,” Smith said of Mariota. “He made enough plays. He gave us a chance.”
Atlanta’s defense was a liability for most of the game. Coordinator Dean Pees said his group looked like a great defense for three quarters against the Saints. In Week 2, the Falcons couldn’t stop the Rams for three quarters, save for when Stafford threw them the ball twice. The Falcons also got the takeaway from Kupp and stopped the Rams before the blocked punt for a TD. Those plays weren’t enough to win because the Rams scored off Mariota’s interception and engineered three long touchdown drives against a yielding defense.
There were some plays in which the Rams showed they are just better than the Falcons. No surprise that many of them featured Kupp, the reigning AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year. But he wasn’t the only one hurting the Falcons. All Rams players who ran routes found plenty of room to catch-and-run against Atlanta’s zone coverage.
Nearly half of Stafford’s 272 passing yards were gained by his receivers after the catch.
“That’s football,” Falcons linebacker Mykal Walker said. “It’s give and take. We were playing zone. Credit to them, they found (room) and exploited it. We just kept sitting in those zones (and) when we get closer and closer at the end, we start playing a little bit more (man-to-man).
“The calls were great. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Smith said the Falcons had to “pick your poison” against the Rams and decided to focus on limiting their deep passes: “We didn’t make enough plays, but the game plan gave us enough (chances) and guys kept grinding.”
Atlanta’s best chance to pull an upset was to take advantage of Stafford’s tendency to make turnover-worthy throws. Stafford did it twice, both times when the Rams were on the march for scores. It didn’t matter because it was too easy for the Rams to move the ball when they didn’t give it away.
The Falcons compounded the defensive problem with some offensive blunders beyond Mariota’s two interceptions. They were sharp on their first possession and moved the ball inside the red zone. A false start on Chris Lindstrom made it third-and-long. Then Bobby Wagner came free unblocked on third down to drop Mariota for a 7-yard loss, followed by Younghoe Koo’s missed field-goal try from 44 yards.
“That’s on me,” Mariota said of the missed block. “I’ve got to do a better job of communicating across the board.”
Those type of miscues are why the Falcons are 0-2. After they followed the collapse against the Saints with a spirited comeback attempt against the Rams, they have some hope that they can be better.