Even games decided by 26 points have turning points. The critical juncture of the Atlanta Falcons' 32-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles came in the final minutes before halftime.
The Falcons began their fourth possession at their own 8-yard line with 3:33 left in the second quarter trailing 7-6. The first play of the drive was a Mike Davis run for a gain of one, which kept the clock moving. Prior to the second snap of the drive, Jalen Mayfield committed a false start to move the ball to the 4-yard line.
Still, head coach Arthur Smith remained conservative with his play calling. Davis received two more carries on second and third down, including a third-and-9. Then the Falcons punted at the two-minute warning.
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Runs on third-and-long are unusually in the modern NFL. In Smith's defense, a Cordarrelle Patterson run on third-and-9 the previous drive went for 11 yards and a first down. But it didn't work a second time.
However, it might not have been in Smith's plans for the play to move the chains anyway.
"You're trying to play the game there," Smith said in his postgame press conference. "You want to get going on a drive there. You're backup. You just don't want to go three-and-out in 10 seconds and give the ball back. We had the penalty then didn't convert."
One could argue that conversion wasn't going to be possible with such a conservative set of plays. Then again, Smith talked at length about avoiding "obvious" passing situations after Sunday's game. Third-and-9 is that kind of situation. When the Falcons dropped back to pass in those types of downs and distances in the fourth quarter, the Eagles sacked Matt Ryan three times.
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Inside his own 10-yard line, Smith didn't trust the offensive line to protect Ryan enough to avoid a big negative play that could turn the game. Smith was trying to get to halftime trailing by just a point.
Instead of trusting the offensive line, Smith put his faith in the Falcons special teams and defense. While punter Cameron Nizialek was inconsistent on Sunday, he did boot a 52-yard punt to push Philadelphia to its own 38 with 1:37 remaining in the half. But the Falcons defense didn't also reward the coach's faith.
Jalen Hurts orchestrated one of the best drives in his five career starts, throwing for 46 yards and running for 34 on the way to the end zone. On the move, Hurts found tight end Dallas Goedert for a nine-yard touchdown with two seconds remaining in the half.
Compounding the frustrating final two minutes, the Falcons committed an illegal formation penalty on the extra-point try. Philadelphia elected to move the ball to the 1-yard line and go for a two-point conversion. Miles Sanders reached the goal line on the try for two additional points.
And that's how a one-point deficit turned into a nine-point hole for the Falcons at halftime.
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It's always easy to second-guess. Trendy young coaches in the NFL today are generally more aggressive than Smith was in Week 1. But in the second half, everyone saw why Smith was so concerned about obvious passing situations.
If the offensive line doesn't improve quickly, Smith may continue to be very conservative with his third-down play calling. And Atlanta may be victimized by more goof