The Falcons need to figure it out fast with Super Bowl rematch with Patriots looming
The defending NFC champs look lost after home defeats to the Bills and the Dolphins
Our first thought was, "How do the Falcons lose to the Dolphins, in Atlanta as 12-point favorites after leading 17-0?!" And it's said with the same incredulity as Craig's dad asking him "How do you get fired on your day off?!"
For us, that's the equivalent of blowing a 17-point lead to a Dolphins outfit that lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill before the season; replaced him with No-Cardio Cutler, who couldn't appear more indifferent if he literally had a cigarette dangling from his lips while awaiting the snap; and had an assistant coach resign after an unsavory video emerged days before Sunday's game.
We're not ready to say the Super Bowl Hangover is real, but Falcons aren't even one of the five best teams in a suddenly up-for-grabs NFC.
So how did we get here?
The good news is that even if 28-3 never happened and the Falcons won Super Bowl LI, we'd still be wondering what was wrong with them five games into the 2017 season. Yes, despite an inexplicable home loss to the Dolphins, which followed an almost-as-inexplicable home loss to the Bills two weeks before, the Falcons are still 3-2 and just a half-game behind the division-leading Panthers.
The bad news is that there's not just one thing you can point to -- "The offensive line needs to be better," for example -- as the easy, obvious problem. The issues extend to every phase, and if the Falcons can't get right with 14 days to prepare for a Dolphins team that had scored 41 points in its four previous games, then things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
In related news: Atlanta will be in Foxborough to face the Patriots next Sunday night for a nationally televised Super Bowl rematch. If last week was all about the players quietly going about their business to get back on track against the Dolphins, this week will include one story after the next about whether the Falcons, eight months later, are still reeling from the worst collapse in Super Bowl history.
What happened against the Dolphins?
The Falcons dominated the first half Sunday, which ended in a comfortable 17-0 lead. Given how the first month of the season unfolded, and how poorly Cutler has looked for most of it, there was no reason to think the Dolphins were capable of coming back.
But a confluence of low-probability events proved otherwise, whether it was turnovers, boneheaded special teams mistakes, or the odd decision by the Falcons to get away from the running game. When you see Devonta Freeman do this in the first half as part of a balanced offense ...
... it's hard to understand why your halftime adjustment would be anything other than, "OK, let's slow the game down, bleed the clock, and get out of here with a win since, you know, we're up 17-0."
One argument could go something like this: Well, the Dolphins got the ball to start the half and marched right down the field on a 15-play, 85-yard drive that ended in a Cutler-to-Kenny Stills touchdown. And then, after a Falcons three-and-out -- that started with a Matt Ryan sack and ended with a 26-yard punt-- the Dolphins marched back down the field for another touchdown, cutting the lead to 17-14.
A three-score lead was now down to a field goal, though that still doesn't explain why the Falcons panicked. Tevin Coleman gained 20 yards on the next series, an eight-play drive that included three runs for 22 yards and five pass plays that resulted in 21 yards, a sack and an offensive holding call. Then, facing 4th and 19 from the Dolphins' 42, this happened:
The Dolphins scored for the third straight time on the next drive, tying the game 17-17. The Falcons went three and out and the Dolphins made it four in a row when they capped off the ensuing drive with another field goal.
The Falcons were still in position to win, but an ill-advised Ryan throw with less than a minute to go ended in the arms of Dolphins safety Reshad Jones. Game over.
Not-so-fun fact: That was the Dolphins' biggest comeback win since they overcame a 21-point deficit against the Bills back in 2005.
Who's to blame?
"Well, I thought we put ourselves behind schedule," Ryan said afterwards. "You know, the first drive of the second half, I think the first play we got backed up with a sack and did a good job on second and third down, but we were a little bit too far behind the chains to come away with a first down, so that was just an execution standpoint. And then again, on the the second drive of the second half, we got into field goal range. We're down there in field goal range, moving the ball, penalty, and another sack, and we kind of got out of a spot where we could put points on the board.
"I think that was critical early (second half). I thought we did a nice job at the end of the game getting down into giving ourselves a chance to win that football game, and just a disappointing way that it ended."
Ryan didn't have to force that ball into double-coverage; the Falcons were only down a field goal so they didn't need a touchdown. Though coach Dan Quinn made it clear after the game that the plan at the end was to win, not tie.
"I was happy how it went at the end of the half. We had good game management, and I was happy at the end," Quinn told reporters. "While we're on that topic, we were going to go win it at the end. Make no mistake about it, we had timeouts, we had time, and we were going to go down to try and score. That's what took place. I thought there were some good plays that we executed on the way, and then the turnover at the end was certainly costly after the tipped pass. We're disappointed. For us to be the team we can be, we've got to be more consistent."
Put another way: This is all cumulative. If not for the special-teams gaffe, the suspect offensive play calls and a defense that somehow found itself on the business end of a Jay Cutler Offensive Explosion (relatively speaking; Cutler finished 19 of 33 with 151 yards, two touchdowns and an interception and a passer rating of 76.7), maybe the Falcons win. Of course, the Dolphins leaned on their running back, Jay Ajayi, and he finished with 130 yards on 26 carries, including 14 second-half carries.
This effort comes two weeks after the Bills sashayed into Atlanta and held Ryan to a 57.1 completion percentage with a touchdown, two interceptions and a lost fumble while Tyrod Taylor was a tidy 12 of 20 for 182 yards and a touchdown and a passer rating of 106.7.
By Sunday evening, Falcons safety Ricardo Allen had seen enough.
"Losing, in general, is hard," he said Sunday. "But two times in a row at home? That's a disrespect to ourselves. That's a disrespect to our coaches. That's a disrespect to our owner. That's a disrespect to our fans. That's a disrespect to everybody that surrounds the damn Falcons because that's not us. ...
"We've got to reset. It ain't no other way. What you going to do, just lay down? There's s--- else you can do. You've got be a man. You've got to know what we work for when we wake up every morning. What we grind for. What this team stands for. We've got to reset."
How to turn things around
Resetting should include more Freeman and Coleman; the Falcons came into Sunday's game with the No. 7 offense, but was just 14th in passing while they were third in running, behind only the Chiefs and Titans, according to Football Outsiders.
For as good at Ryan was a season ago when he rightfully earned NFL MVP honors, he's been something less than that in 2017. He's 13th in total value among all quarterbacks, behind Jameis Winston, Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota, and according to Pro Football Focus, he's 21st when throwing the ball more than 20 yards downfield and 17th when under pressure. Ryan seems like exactly the type of quarterback who would benefit from a running game.
Meanwhile, the defense remains a liability even after the organization spent the offseason bolstering the unit. The D ranked 24th before the Dolphins game, a lot of which had to do with their inability to get after the quarterback. They rank 20th in rushing the passer, and didn't sack Cutler a single time on Sunday. Coming into the game Cutler had been sacked 10 times, and at least once in each of the previous four contests.
But this was a defense that found success in the back half of last season despite losing its best cornerback to injury. Whatever there issues are now, the Falcons must rediscover that winning formula in order to contend for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Best-case scenario is history repeating itself
A year ago, the Falcons started 4-1 before back-to-back losses had everyone outside building questioning the offense, defense and special teams. If nothing else, it's a familiar conversation and recent history shows they're capable of fixing it.
But the bigger question is why does it keep happening? Asked if he was frustrated at finding himself in this situation again, Quinn said this:
"Any time you are, it totally bums you out, and you try to find out what was the cause of not being able to finish like we wanted, and that's what we will do. We'll reset it and get right to it because in our league you've got to go back and get ready to play again. You've got to get the corrections first. All of the ones are teaching moments, but you don't really get tested until you're in the fire. For us to not close today like we wanted to, that was disappointing because we were certainly ready to there at the end."
On Sunday, the Falcons will face off against their final opponent from last season. And like Atlanta, New England isn't nearly the team it was eight months ago. But unlike the Patriots, who play in an eminently winnable division, the Falcons have little room for error in the NFC South, which also includes the Panthers and the much-improved Saints.
Put another way: With their bye week behind them, the "resetting" everyone keeps talking about needs to happen now.
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