Desperation is one hell of a drug in the NFL, and the Atlanta Falcons can't get enough of it. On Monday night, the suddenly resurgent Falcons left Seattle with a crucial 34-31 win over the Seahawks. As a result, the Falcons (6-4) replaced the Seahawks (6-4) as the NFC's sixth and final playoff seed.
Perhaps most importantly, the Falcons finally took a punch and responded. Scratch that: They took a combination of punches and responded -- every time. The 28-3 jokes probably won't ever permanently die away, but for one night, the Falcons demonstrated that they're capable of holding onto a lead when a playoff-worthy foe keeps coming after them over and over again.
The Falcons put the Seahawks in an early hole when Tevin Coleman, filling in for the concussed Devonta Freeman, scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. Russell Wilson then threw one of the worst interceptions of his career when he missed his receiver by more than a few yards. The ball went directly into Desmond Trufant's chest instead. He made up for the blunder with a touchdown-saving tackle.
The Seahawks defense had a chance to bail out Wilson, but dropped a gimme pick on the goal line. They didn't get another chance because Mohamed Sanu then came down with an Odell Beckham-esque touchdown. Suddenly, the Falcons led 14-0 in less than half a quarter and CenturyLink Field got eerily quiet.
The Seahawks briefly woke up, scoring a Jimmy Graham red zone touchdown to cut the lead in half and forcing a stop. And then their run ended. It ended because Takkarist McKinley strip-sacked Wilson, and the scorching hot Adrian Clayborn (six sacks last week) scooped the ball up en route to the end zone. Suddenly, the Falcons led by 14 points again. And Pete Carroll was left looking like he just watched the ending of "Interstellar."
So … he really just used that bookshelf ... to talk to his daughter … through time?
There's no way Carroll could've known this, but the Falcons were about to make their own silly mistake to let the Seahawks back into the game. After the Seahawks trimmed the lead with a field goal, they kicked off with a pooch kick. The Seahawks recovered the loose ball and scored a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal rollout run by Wilson.
Suddenly, it was 21-17 and Carroll looked like he just drank 10 Red Bulls and sucked the sugar out of five packs of gum -- you know, his normal look. You don't even need to see the other side of his head to know what his facial expression is below:
Give credit to the Falcons, though, because they responded. After converting a crucial third-and-15, they kicked a field goal before halftime to push their lead to seven points. A-- a decision that ended up haunting them later.
On the other side of the break, the Falcons responded to a Seahawks field goal with an eight-play, 76-yard drive that Ryan capped with a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Levine Toilolo on a beautifully designed play-action throwback. The Falcons took an 11-point lead.
Again, the Seahawks responded with a field goal to make it a one-score game. In need of a close-out drive, the Falcons' offense did exactly that. After the two teams exchanged punts, the Falcons traveled 61 yards on nine plays and burned over five minutes of game clock before kicking a field goal from the 1-yard line to bury the Seahawks for good.
Just kidding. Because Wilson remains one of the game's best quarterbacks and the Falcons love flirting with disaster, Wilson quickly engineered a 75-yard, eight-point drive in under a minute. The Falcons' offense, once again, needed to close out the game with three minutes showing on the clock. They didn't do it. Sheldon Richardson sacked Ryan on third down on the other side of the two-minute warning, giving Wilson one final chance.
Wilson got the ball back with 1:46 remaining. He drove them into field goal range with seven seconds showing on the clock. All Blair Walsh needed to do was drill a 52-yard field goal -- no easy task for a kicker with a history missing big kicks. His kick stayed on target. But it fell short by a few yards.
This is the kind of win that could turn the Falcons' season around. They're still lagging behind the Saints and Panthers in the NFC South, but they're alive and most importantly, seemingly trending in the right direction. Don't count out this version of the Falcons from embarking on a late regular-season run and making noise in the postseason. They're certainly not perfect or anywhere near close to the team they were a year ago, but they're making progress.
This is the kind of loss that will haunt the Seahawks. The Rams' loss to the Vikings on Sunday meant the Seahawks had a chance to snag a share of the lead in the NFC West. They let that opportunity slip through their hands. They're not out of it yet -- not with a game against the Rams still on the schedule -- but this loss hurts.
Now to seven takeaways from the game.
1. Falcons' offense shows signs of improvement
A week ago, the Falcons put up 27 points against the Cowboys. On Monday night, they put up 27 points (not counting the defensive touchdown) again. They went 9 of 14 on third down. Matt Ryan completed 19 of 27 passes for 195 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, and a 115.5 passer rating. Julio Jones came up with a couple huge catches. Eight different players caught at least one pass.
No, this still wasn't the prolific version of the Falcons we saw all of last season. Yes, this outing came against a decimated Seattle defense missing Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Cliff Avril. But the play-calling from Steve Sarkisian was better. The offense appeared to be in rhythm. They didn't make many boneheaded mistakes.
The Falcons just need to make sure the offense continues to improve down the stretch. They're not there yet, but finally, it seems possible that they can reach the level of play that is required to win playoff games.
2. Seahawks sink or swim with Wilson
The Seahawks' running game is virtually non-existent. Their defense is decimated. And yet, they still had a chance to win the game. That reason is Wilson, who remains the Seahawks' only hope to salvage their season.
On Monday night, Wilson went 26 of 42 for 258 yards, three total touchdowns (one rushing), one pick, a bad fumble, and an 85.2 passer rating. The statistics don't do his performance justice. To move the ball with any sort of consistency, the Seahawks always need Wilson to manufacture positive plays out of broken plays.
There's no way a stat line can capture what he did to Vic Beasley in the first half, when he did his best Allen Iverson impression with his version of a crossover. He deserved to get credited with a touchdown pass when he danced around multiple defenders in the backfield before tossing a perfect off-balance strike to Graham in the end zone, but the ball was dropped. In the second half, he made a Falcons defender fall over with a pump fake from 10 yards away, confirming that he is in fact a Jedi.
When the Seahawks needed eight points late in the fourth quarter, he got them exactly that, mounting a 75-yard drive in 49 seconds.
He got the Seahawks in field goal range, but Walsh couldn't power the ball through. Wilson certainly made some mistakes (see his interception and fumble), but he's the reason why the Seahawks will have a chance to win every one of their remaining games.
3. Injuries mounting in Seattle
The Seahawks' injury report grew on Monday night. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who is even more important with Richard Sherman out for the year, left on the first series with a head injury. He didn't return.
Seattle certainly has a running-game problem, but they thought found a solution on Monday night with Mike Davis, who thrived in the early going, picking up 59 yards on eight touches. But he left the game with a groin injury and didn't return.
The Seahawks are now at a point with their injuries where they simply don't have much room for error. Yet they've been increasingly error prone in recent weeks.
SEA in last two home games: 3 missed FGA, 3 INT, 24 accepted penalties, odd fake punt, wasted TOs … w/o margin for error that once existed.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) November 21, 2017
It'd be silly to write off the Seahawks. Wilson remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game -- dare I say, generational. Carroll is one of the game's best coaches, though he made a few strange choices on Monday night, like the fake field goal and a horrible challenge that wasted an important timeout. And Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas can still save the defense.
But injuries have robbed them to the point where they're no longer the Super Bowl contender we thought they'd be entering the season.
4. Sanu's catch overshadows Julio's
On Monday night, Atlanta's receiving corps reminded us how damn good they can be. It turns out, Julio Jones is still Julio Jones:
And Sanu is still one of the better WR2s in football.
Quick side note: The Georgia Dome -- the Falcons' former home -- was blown to smithereens on Monday. The Weather Channel tried to broadcast it. But that didn't work too well.
The Falcons' social media team responded:
In the fourth quarter, when the Falcons needed a close-out drive -- you know, the thing they couldn't do in the Super Bowl -- they turned to Jones. He came through.
5. Jimmy Graham: Red-zone machine
In his first two seasons with the Seahawks, Graham caught eight touchdowns in 27 regular season games. This year, he's caught seven touchdowns in 10 games.
They're finally featuring him in the red zone. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seahawks threw the ball to Graham 25 times in the red zone in 2015-16. Entering Monday night, they threw the ball to him 16 times in the red zone.
On Monday night, Graham caught another red zone touchdown.
That being said, midway through the second quarter, Graham nearly caught a touchdown on third-and-goal on what should've been an incredible play by Wilson, who miraculously escaped pressure and somehow threw a perfect pass on the run to Graham. Graham let the pass fall through his hands.
Still, Graham finished with seven catches for 58 yards, a touchdown, and a two-point conversion.
6. Bad special teams
Seahawks returner Tyler Lockett racked up 197 yards on five returns, which means he averaged 39.4 yards per kick return. He came oh so close to setting a new record:
No NFL kickoff returner has gained 200 yards in a game years since the league incentivized touchbacks with last year's rule change. Tyler Lockett has 172 kickoff return yards in the first half tonight.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) November 21, 2017
The special teams woes weren't limited to Atlanta. Mistakes plagued Seattle too. They allowed a huge kickoff return to begin the game and at the end of the first half, they ran one of the more embarrassing fake field goals you'll ever see.
Both teams need to correct some issues.
7. What's next?
Up next for Seattle is a road game vs. the 49ers (in what should be an easy win) before a tough stretch against the Eagles, Jaguars, and Rams. That stretch will likely decide the Seahawks' season. As it stands, they're currently out of the playoff picture. The Falcons have taken over the sixth seed due to a tiebreaker.
The Falcons also get one easy game against the Buccaneers before a daunting closing stretch. They finish out with games against the Vikings, Saints, Buccaneers, Saints, and Panthers. The playoffs are within reach, but their schedule won't make it easy.