Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The teetering Falcons go kerplunk in Pittsburgh


Nine NFL teams have made the playoffs after starting 1-4. If you’re the Falcons, there’s your rallying cry. Question is, are there enough Falcons left to rally? 

One week earlier, Dan Quinn had proclaimed his “a good team,” its record notwithstanding. One wipeout loss later, we wonder if the old Bill Parcells line now holds sway: In the NFL, you’re what you’re record says you are. The Falcons are 1-4, having just lost 41-17 to a team that entered 1-2-1. 

So, Quinn was asked Sunday, did he still consider this a good team? “I do,” he said. “I stand by that.” 

Next question: Given the dearth of able defenders, is he confident that the remaining personnel can staff a good team? 

“I am. In some cases, there’s some on the job training, and that’s to be expected. But our entire team is not decimated.” 

That was the galling part. The Falcons didn’t lose another shootout. On the contrary. They barely activated their most dangerous player. Julio Jones’ first catch came in the fourth quarter with his team trailing by 17. Steve Sarkisian stuck with a running game that was, even with the return of Devonta Freeman, going nowhere. Matt Ryan was sacked six times – Ben Roethlisberger, his counterpart, wasn’t sacked – and the last dumping yielded the fumble that became a gratuitous sixth Steelers touchdown. 

Jones finished with five insignificant catches for 62 yards. Antonio Brown, whose supporters believe him to be the NFL’s best receiver, caught six passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Afterward someone wondered if Jones was frustrated. 

“There was no frustration,” he said, scowling. “Come on.” 

Someone else mentioned the six sacks. “I don’t know,” Jones said. “My back was turned. I was running routes.” 

Said linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, asked about the latest defensive no-show: “Y’all watched the game, just like I did. We just couldn’t get off the field on third down.” 

Their capitulation was total. The defense yielded five touchdowns, which should come as no shock, seeing as how they’d also yielded five in each of the past two games. The offense, supposedly reborn under Sarkisian, managed two touchdowns. (With Sark as offensive coordinator, the Falcons are 0-3 in Pennsylvania.) There was never a chance that 17 points would win this game; the Steelers wound up with more than twice that. 

The Falcons missed more tackles, four on one screen to James Conner, playing mostly because Le’Veon Bell is holding out. (It came in the third quarter on third-and-13 when the Falcons were within 13-10.) They had another punt blocked, their second in three games. They committed their usual silly penalties, although Foye Oluokun’s belated throw-down of Conner, who’d been halted for no gain, was so egregious even Quinn conceded, “Not sure where that came from.” 

To reiterate: As of Labor Day, this was considered one of the NFL’s best rosters. Injuries have taken a chunk from that talent base, but still: They’ve played five times, winning once. Owner Arthur Blank was asked if he saw 1-4 coming. He winced and said, “Are you kidding me?” 

So: What do the free-falling Falcons do now? (Please don’t say, “Rise UP!”) Said Blank: “We can’t erase the last five games. We have to make adjustments. That’s all you can do. Start out next week and act like it’s 0-0. Nobody wants to hear any excuses. Nobody wants to hear any stories. That’s the nature of this business.” 

Quinn: “The answers are within our own locker room, to play like we’re capable of playing.” 

I’m not sure that’s true, not anymore. The Falcons got outscored by New Orleans and Cincinnati. They got bullied by Pittsburgh. The home side, which needed this game just as much as the visitors, rushed for 131 yards and held the Falcons to 62. (Twenty of those came on one Freeman run, 10 more on a Ryan scramble.) The Steelers hit the Falcons and kept hitting. The Falcons got behind, got tired and pretty much called it a day. They were outscored 28-7 after halftime. 

Quinn: “The second half clearly missed the standard of what we hold for ourselves. We completely missed our mark.” 

And there, looking toward Tampa Bay next weekend and the 10 games beyond it, is the issue. What if Quinn’s band of believers check the record (hugely disappointing) and the injury list (unbelievably lengthy) and decide, “Enough of the rah-rah; this year’s over”? 

It’s worth noting that Kansas City made the playoffs in 2015 after starting 1-5. Those Chiefs won 10 consecutive games. Really, though: Do you see a team that can’t stop anybody winning even three in a row? 

Said Campbell: “We have to take the positives from this game and run with them.” 

This prompted a reporter to ask: What positives? “We couldn’t get off the field on third down,” Campbell said. “We just have to get off the field.” (When you lose 41-17, just getting on the bus constitutes a positive.)

Campbell concluded by saying: “We’ve got to push through this. We’re going through a little funk right now. It happens, but it’s about how we respond to it. If we sit here and feel sorry for ourselves, we’ll continue to lose. But if we make the corrections we need to make, we’ll be just fine.” 

Maybe they will. There’s time enough, barely, to salvage something from a season going wrong. At issue is whether there’s enough manpower – or enough willpower.


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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.