At some point in the NFL season, you are what your record says you are.
There are plenty of explanations as to why the Atlanta Falcons are 4-4 despite having nearly the same personnel back from last year’s record-setting offense and young but rising defense. The fact is, the Falcons are two games out of first in the NFC South, on the outside looking in as wild-card projections take shape, and have allowed more points than they’ve scored this season.
“We have played pretty average football and our record is pretty average, so that’s where we are at right now,” third-year coach Dan Quinn said after Sunday’s 20-17 loss in Carolina. “Do I think that we could be better? For sure. I fully expect us to work at practice to try and find ways to improve across the board and I really feel like if we can clean up a couple of situational things we can play some pretty good football.”
An inexplicable drop by Julio Jones aside (as difficult as it is to put that aside) the Falcons had ample opportunities to beat the Panthers for a fourth consecutive time. But they went 4-for-12 on third downs and 0-for-3 on fourth downs. They opened the second half with two three-and-outs. Oft-maligned first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian didn’t force Ryan to force a downfield throw that was intercepted on a first down late in the first half (setting up the Panthers for a touchdown to end the half). He didn’t drop Jones’ wide-open touchdown pass in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter. In fact, he dialed up the play to get Jones so open.
If there’s one critique of Sarkisian from Sunday’s game, Quinn offered it later in the week. On a third-and-1 on their first drive of the second half, Sark called a pass play for Austin Hooper that didn’t fool the Panthers; Ryan faced pressure (thanks to non-existent protection) and the pass fell incomplete. “That one didn’t fire me up as much,” Quinn admitted as the Falcons failed to experience the same ground success in the second half as they did in the first.
Early in the season, you could equivocate on just how good the Falcons were. They squeaked out a Week 1 win in Chicago despite playing poorly in the red zone then turned around and dominated Aaron Rodgers’ Packers (don't you miss them?) on Sunday Night Football. Atlanta’s first loss of the season—a 23-17 home defeat against the Bills—saw them turn the ball over three times, including a controversial Matt Ryan incomplete pass that was ruled a fumble and went for a Bills touchdown.
And before Atlanta lost to New England on Sunday Night Football, the Falcons had an embarrassing home loss to Miami in which Ryan, down three with 47 seconds left and in field goal range with two timeouts to work with, threw a game-ending interception. The reigning MVP has seven picks this season; he had four at this point last year.
“The pieces are in place and it all comes down to execution, right?” says Hooper. “No team that we played this year we felt was, on paper, more talented. But that doesn’t matter. Football is a game of execution and that’s been the tale of the tape for us through Week 9.”
Now the Falcons face the unenviable task of hosting Dallas then going to Seattle in consecutive weeks. Their season won’t be decided in the next two weeks—they have five NFC South contests in their last six games—but it will go a long way to figuring out if the Falcons are yet another Super Bowl loser that can’t beat the hangover.
“It would be a big difference if we were getting blown out or we weren’t fighting people to the end in every game we lost,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. “We’ve fought all the way down to the end. It’s going to roll our way sooner or later and we have to keep doing what we’re doing, keep battling a dig a little deeper.”
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