One day after confetti fell, one day after Georgia players left the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium having inflated the heads of their fans with championship dreams, the Falcons played the role of a rapidly deflating balloon.
The team that rolled for 95 points in the previous three games was held to three field goals and kept out of the end zone for the first time in two years.
The offense that converted 27 of 41 third downs (65.9 percent) during a three-game winning streak looked like it was lost in a corn maze, going 1-for-10.
The quarterback who had thrown a touchdown pass in 30 straight games was skunked -- and Matt Ryan also had his lowest yardage output (173) since 2013.
The college football playoff rankings committee wasn’t watching this game. Good thing, because the Falcons would be penciled in for the Liberty Bowl right now.
“From our standpoint, we’re way better than nine points,” Julio Jones said.
Yes. Except they weren’t Sunday.
The Falcons lost at home to Minnesota 14-9. They dropped to 7-5 with four games remaining. All come against NFC South teams, starting with New Orleans Thursday night.
Assume nothing with this bunch. The Vikings are good. They may not really be 10-2 good but they have one of the NFL’s best defenses and coach Mike Zimmer and his staff are somehow making a team that starts vagabond Case Keenum at quarterback look like a Super Bowl threat.
But what happened Sunday wasn’t as simple as the Falcons losing to a better team. The Falcons underachieved. Again. They had two players missing but from the defense: cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole. The defense was exposed at times. The Vikings had a 15-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that stretched eight minutes, 15 seconds in the fourth quarter and gave them a 14-9 lead.
But here’s the bottom line: Minnesota scored only 14 points. This loss wasn’t on the defense. This team with this offense should never lose a game when the opponent scores 14 points. Never.
They got into trouble in the first half with penalties. Even when that problem was corrected, they never got into rhythm, never kept drives going, never found holes in the Vikings’ clogging, clutch-and-grab defense.
The Falcons were so horrible on third down that with five minutes remaining and trailing by five points at the Minnesota 27-yard line that coach Dan Quinn decided to attempt a 45-yard field goal on fourth-and-four rather than go for a touchdown. Matt Bryant missed for the first time.
Quinn’s decision wasn’t necessarily wrong, given the remaining time, it just backfired. The Vikings ran out the clock and the Falcons never got the ball back. But Quinn’s decision illustrated the coach’s lack of confidence in his offense, and that’s bad sign for a team with Ryan, Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
“Our inability on third down at that point, I thought we’d get a good kick from Matt, we’d get a stop and we’d go down and win,” Quinn said. “It didn’t work out.”
The Falcons’ offense reached the red zone only once, and even that is debatable. An 11-yard run by Freeman on third-and-17 brought the ball to the Vikings’ 20, leading to Bryant’s first field goal.
Quinn said he was surprised by the step back offensively, adding, “We had hit our stride” in consecutive wins over Dallas, Seattle and Tampa Bay. He suggested there was some frustration on the part of some of his key offensive players, like Ryan and Jones, adding, “They thought maybe there were some opportunities that would’ve been there.”
Pressed to elaborate, Quinn said, “Could there have been a foul that could’ve occurred? But we certainly don’t want to put it on anybody else.”
They shouldn’t. This was on them, not officials. Jones and Freeman both said every defense grabs and gets away with things. It’s an offense’s job to fight through that.
From Jones, who was held to two catches for 24 yards the week after blowtorching Tampa Bay for 12 grabs for 253 yards and two touchdowns: “We were just off today.”
From Ryan: “We had too many third-and-7s. One of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down.”
From tackle Jake Matthews: “This isn’t what we expect of ourselves or what we’re capable of. We had plenty of opportunities, and obviously settling for field goals isn’t the best strategy. It’s on us. We’ve got to get better.”
They’re running out of time.
About last night: Georgia is SEC champion again, thanks to defense and Kirby Smart