Having lost two winnable games and a half-dozen players to injury, the Atlanta Falcons were in danger of losing a bit of the luster they’d labored long to acquire. As if on cue, one of the NFL’s most glamorous – and notorious – teams arrived at the Georgia Dome on Sunday night. What better way to raise one’s profile than by whipping the New England Patriots?
The trouble with that: The Patriots didn’t become the Patriots by being easy to beat. Even with Aaron Hernandez in jail and Wes Welker in Denver and Rob Gronkowski in limbo, the man who drives the New England bus – speaking figuratively, as you’d never mistake Tom Brady for Ralph Kramden – is a quarterback who’s among the best there ever was, or is, or will be.
We learned this night that Brady throwing to nobody of consequence trumps Matt Ryan throwing to the NFL’s best collection of receivers, which made no sense but there it was. The Patriots won 30-23, dropping the Falcons to 1-3 and making things harder, big-picture-wise, than it has been since Ryan and Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008.
“In the NFL, you get what you’ve earned,” said Smith, the head coach. “We’ve earned a 1-3 record.”
After four games, the 2013 Falcons have already lost as many regular-season games as last year’s team. (Or 2010’s, if you recall.) They didn’t figure to be very good defensively, but the high-priced offense hasn’t held up its end. They lost 21-17 in New Orleans, 27-23 in Miami. Only against St. Louis has this offense managed more than two touchdowns.
We can blame the absence of feature back Steven Jackson, hurt against the Rams, but let’s get real: This is football, and guys get injured. The greater issue is that the Falcons have played a month and their best all-around effort came in the last-minute loss to the Dolphins. Against Tom Brady’s bunch they made some plays and gained some yards but accomplished little until the very end.
The game began as all Falcons games begin: They drove and scored. (On opening drives, they might be the best team in the history of football.) The difference was that this first drive didn’t yield the accustomed 7-0 lead. Ryan threw the ball away on second-and-goal. He also threw it away on third-and-goal. The team that batted .400 on scoring touchdowns inside the 20 at Miami was hitting .000 in prime time.
They’d be back, but not until New England had taken a 10-3 lead. The Patriots’ first trip inside the Falcons’ red zone was capped by a red-letter throw. On third-and-goal inside the 1, Brady faked a handoff and delivered a pass that both Akeem Dent and William Moore seemed in position to deflect. But the ball traveled too fast for either Falcon to raise his hand to the needed level. It was just a tiny reminder that he’s still Tom Brady.
Back to the game. Brady’s dinky-but-dauntless touchdown was caught by tight end Matthew Mulligan, who’s among the many faceless Pat pass-catchers. The Falcons answered by throwing the ball to their famous tight end. Tony Gonzalez would snag seven first-half passes, five of them in the second quarter. The last came inside the half’s final minute, with Gonzalez grabbing Ryan’s pass at the 10, pivoting past the stumbling safety Steve Gregory and making haste – or at least as much haste as a 37-year-old can make – for the pylon.
That 21-yard-touchdown tied matters at 10 and perhaps offered a tip to the Falcons: Having trouble inside the 20? Don’t venture there. Earlier in the second quarter they’d managed to bungle another red-zone chance. This failed after coach Mike Smith, who opted for a field goal on fourth-and-1 at the Miami 2, eschewed kicking on fourth-and-2 at the New England 7. Ryan rolled left and then threw badly, which Ryan doesn’t often do, for Roddy White at the corner of the end zone.
The second half was all New England until the final six minutes, when another Gonzalez touchdown — this from inside the 20, hurrah! — and a successful onside kick and a Matt Bryant field goal brought the Falcons within 30-23. Then an amazing thing happened. On fourth-and-an-inch at the Atlanta 37, Brady fumbled the snap.
With 1:50 remaining, the Falcons had the ball and a chance to tie. Maybe in another year they would have. This time they didn’t. A 49-yard pass to Julio Jones, who’d been quiet until then, took them to the New England 13. But they failed — same as they’d failed against San Francisco in the NFC championship game — to cash the check.
The Patriots put two men on Gonzalez, who caught 14 passes for a career-best 149 yards, on third and fourth down. Ryan had to dump the ball to Jacquizz Rodgers for a short gain on third down, and on fourth his pass to White was defended by the estimable Aqib Talib. Another red-zone failure. Another loss.
Said Harry Douglas, the slot receiver: “We can’t make every game a come-down-to-the-end thing.”
Said Ryan, who passed for 421 yards: “It was not our best effort (in the red zone). We had our chances. We didn’t make plays … The only way I know how to fix it is to go back to work.”
The Falcons were 2-for-5 at scoring touchdowns inside Miami’s 20; they were 1-for-6 inside New England’s. They said after last week they needed to get better. They got worse.
Ryan again: “We’re four games into it, and we’ve been in all four. We had a shot at the end in all those games, and we’ve lost three of them.”
Four games into it, there’s still time to salvage this season, but this — insert “duh” here — cannot keep happening. This team is too gifted to be losing like this. This team — another “duh” — has to figure out how to score touchdowns, or else it’s going nowhere.