Worst loss of season makes ‘close’ argument tougher for Falcons

The Falcons offered something for nearly everyone who watched them play Sunday in Tampa Bay. They delivered another loss for those fans rooting for the highest draft pick possible. Those looking for fight from their Falcons saw them trim a 17-point first-half deficit to three at the end of the third quarter. The only observers left wanting are those who, like me, believe the Falcons aren’t so far from being a pretty good team

The Falcons lost 44-27 at Tampa Bay when Tom Brady does what he always does to them. It was their only defeat of the season by at least three scores. The victory earned the Buccaneers a first-round playoff date with the weak NFC East champion instead of a better team. The Falcons (4-12) will wait to see where they’ll pick in the draft and continue their search for a coach and general manager.

The soon-be-determined coach and football executive will inherit a losing team with a tight salary cap. Interim coach Raheem Morris, a candidate to keep his job, again made the case that the Falcons are close to being good. He cited two areas that must improve for that to happen.

“We’ve got to find a way to run the ball consistently, and we’ve got to find a way to get after the quarterback with our four-man rush,” Morris said.

That means improving the play on both lines. It means finding a more dynamic running back than Todd Gurley, who ended this season as a $5 million backup. Add better pass coverage to that list. If the new GM decides the Falcons need to start over, it will be tempting to draft quarterback Matt Ryan’s successor. If not, their needs are obvious.

Maybe the Falcons can contend for a Wild Card in 2022 if they fix those problems despite their cap restrictions and get better luck with injuries and in close games. The most important development for the Falcons is that, over the final month, Ryan showed that he’s not finished.

It’s hard to play quarterback without consistent pass protection or a credible running game. It also didn’t help that Julio Jones wasn’t healthy for most of the season. The Falcons can’t cut or trade Ryan without severely damaging their salary cap. He said he expects to be back.

“I think I’m here,” Ryan said. “I feel like I can be a really good football player for a long time. But no one knows. You never know in this football league what can happen.

“But I want to be here. I want to be part of turning this thing around and getting back to the playoffs.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

I understand if you believe the Falcons are far away from doing that. They are 18-30 since winning a playoff game at the Rams in January 2018. They are 28-36 since blowing the Super Bowl in Houston. The Falcons went 4-7 after replacing Dan Quinn with Morris.

The gap has grown between the Falcons and the best teams in the NFC South. Even if Drew Brees retires after this season, the Saints beat them twice with backup Taysom Hill. Brady, 43, looks rejuvenated. Both the Saints and Bucs have stronger defenses. The Saints have a cap crunch for 2021, but that’s a lesser problem for a good team that can afford to part with some veterans.

The Bucs became contenders by dumping Jameis Winston and signing Brady. He wobbled earlier in the season in coach Bruce Arians’ offense. Over the past four games Brady is 99-for-140 (71 percent) for 1,333 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception on Sunday that wasn’t his fault.

Brady was 26 of 41 for 399 yards and four touchdowns in the rematch with the Falcons. He took over in the second half, same as he did two weeks ago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After the Falcons cut their 17-point deficit to three, Brady was 12 of 14 for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

“I was really proud of how the team fought back into the game,” Morris said. “But Tom is calm, cool and collected.”

The Falcons faded to their fifth straight loss and sixth in seven games. Their fate was essentially sealed when they started 0-5. That’s why franchise owner Arthur Blank fired Quinn. Losing more games was the best thing for their draft position. And they were competitive in all those losses except the final one.

Team Tank was happy on Sunday when the Falcons fell behind 20-3 in the second quarter. Brady was sharp and the Falcons made their typical assortment of mistakes. They rallied when their defense stiffened for a stretch and Ryan found his rhythm on long, methodical scoring drives. The Falcons tried to flip the script from the first meeting, when the Bucs came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit to win 31-27.

The comeback attempt began when the Falcons converted a fourth-and-4 with Ryan’s pass to Hayden Hurst. That put the ball at the 1. Gurley, the designated goalline back, ran for no gain on the next play before Ryan plowed into the end zone to reduce the deficit to 20-10. Advantage: Team Win.

The Bucs answered by easily moving into scoring position, which they did all day. Then the Falcons resisted, which also was a pattern. The drive ended with Falcons safety Ricardo Allen intercepting Brady’s pass after wide receiver Scotty Miller couldn’t hang on to it.

The Falcons began at their 18-yard line and quickly moved past midfield. They thwarted Tampa Bay’s blitzes with quick passes and yards after catches. They converted a fourth down when Jamel Dean grabbed Calvin Ridley for a pass interference penalty. Morris decided to kick a field goal on fourth down at the 3. Score one for Team Tank.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Bucs pushed the lead back to 30-20 with a nine-play scoring (they were helped by an iffy pass interference penalty called on Foye Oluokun). The Falcons trimmed the lead to a field goal again. Brian Hill broke free for a 62-yard run before Ryan tossed a TD pass to Hayden Hurst on fourth down at the 1. Team Win was on the come.

But, once again, the Falcons once weren’t good enough to finish. Tampa Bay marched for a touchdown with Brady completing three passes for 75 yards. Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley lost a fumble. Three plays later Brady threw his second TD pass to Antonio Brown, this one for 30 yards.

A close game quickly became a Bucs runaway. The Falcons lost as many as 12 games for the first time since 2013. Morris insisted that doesn’t mean they are a hopelessly bad team.

“These guys are not far away,” Morris said. “They’ve got a chance. They are battle-tested. They’ve played against a bunch of playoff-bound teams in the last (few) weeks. They fought and have not been able to get the wins.

“We are that close.”

This was the Falcons’ least persuasive game of the season for that argument. But it was good for their draft position and for those who didn’t want to see them quit. At least some wins came out of their worst loss of the season.