The final score of the Atlanta Falcons loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked more lopsided than the game felt.
The final score was 48-25 in favor of the Buccaneers, but with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Atlanta was trailing 28-25 and had the ball.
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Despite Tom Brady's five touchdown passes, despite Mike Edwards back-to-back pick-6s to seal the game, it might just have been a pair of punts that won the game for the Buccaneers.
The Falcons had just closed the gap on the Buccaneers from 28-10 to 28-25 and stopped Tampa on their own 39-yard line. Tampa Bay punter Bradley Pinion boomed a 57-yard punt and pinned Atlanta at their own 4-yard line.
Atlanta failed to get a first down, having failed on third and inches, and the Falcons were forced to punt. Atlanta punter Cameron Nizialek could only muster 33 yards, and the Buccaneers picked up net 24 yards on a punt and three defensive plays.
Three plays later, Brady threw his fifth touchdown pass of the day to Chris Godwin. With the score 35-25, the game was essentially over.
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith was asked about Nizialek's punt after the game, and he discussed the sequence and not just the punt itself.
"There's a lot of plays," said Smith. "You can't just blame it on one play. It's a lead up; we've got to be able to convert third and inches.
"We put the punter back there, everybody's got a job to do. You get down in the fourth quarter and those plays are magnified, but there's a lot of plays that lead up to it. We've got to keep improving. Clearly."
Smith and new general manager Terry Fontenot were handicapped by the previous regime and their mismanagement of the salary cap and roster as a whole. The Falcons severely lack talent and depth across the roster, and maybe worse, they don't have the salary cap room to make moves for immediate improvement.
To his credit, Smith has yet to place blame on a lack of talent or depth, and he didn't after Sunday's game when given the opportunity to discuss the Falcons deficiencies.
"Look, the margin of error is small in the NFL," Smith said. "It usually comes down to turnovers. We had three, and they had one. Ours came at critical times in the fourth quarter.
"I would say that about any game in the NFL. There's very few times you'd say the margin of error is big in the NFL; these are professionals. That's every week. The margin of error is small."
The margin of error was small enough for the Falcons to turn a promising 28-25 game into a blowout loss in roughly a dozen plays in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons will be in action next Sunday against the New York Giants. Like the Falcons, the Giants are also 0-2, but they'll have three extra days of rest and preparation having played last Thursday against Washington.
For the second week in a row, the Falcons will play a road game against a team coming off a Thursday night game and extra days off. That doesn't help an Atlanta team already dealing with a slim margin of error.
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