The Atlanta Falcons were one of the surprise teams in the NFL this season when they began 5-0.
After missing the playoffs for the last two years, the Falcons re-tooled somewhat over the offseason, hiring Dan Quinn as their head coach and Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator.
To start the season, the Falcons’ offence and defensive lines looked improved, Matt Ryan was efficient, Julio Jones was on fire, and Devonta Freeman was having the best season of any running back.
Things have turned sharply downhill since that 5-0 start. The Falcons got to 6-1 and have since lost five games in a row. The Falcons have lost twice to the Bucs, had a late collapse to the Colts, and a horribly mismanaged finish against the 49ers. Losing to the Vikings in Week 12 was understandable, though also hurtful as the Vikings were their competition for an NFC Wild Card spot.
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, the offensive blame can be shifted to both Ryan, his receivers, and Shanahan. Ryan has thrown a bevy of picks in recent weeks — nine interceptions to nine touchdowns. That wreaks of careless quarterbacking, but importantly, over the last six games, Ryan’s completion rate has basically remained the same.
Barnwell points out that Ryan’s receivers aren’t getting open. Jones has slowed down from what was a historic start, Roddy White has aged, and Leonard Hankerson has been injured and is now on the IR after a solid start to the season. As Barnwell notes, since Week 7, the Falcons are dead-last in yards after the catch with 3.8.
With Ryan struggling to throw deep passes during this recent slump, thus creating an intertwined issue. Ryan can’t go deep, his receivers can’t get open and they can’t make big plays after the catch when they’re going over the middle for short gains. Ryan has also recently struggled going over the middle, according to Barnwell, throwing picks on nearly 5% of such passes.
The Falcons have had issues on defence, and while that may be schematic, it may be effort-related, too. After Jameis Winston’s 20-yard scramble for a first down in Week 13, which set up the Bucs’ game-winning touchdown, even Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy questioned the Falcons’ effort:
“Go back and look at the play and look at Jameis’ speed, and how he was playing, as opposed to look at the Atlanta Falcons and the speed they were playing at. They had thought he was down, guys walking around, jogging to him. Even when he started running again, guys were just jogging, ‘Oh, we’ll get him down.’ And Jameis was running for his life. You could just see the difference in how he was playing opposed to how the other team was playing. I mean, you just, we want it, man.”
The Falcons shrugged off the comments, but for a team ranked 23rd in Football Outsider’s defensive DVOA, effort shouldn’t be a problem.
The Falcons are now in a serious jam and have little hope of regaining the Wild Card spot they let slip through their fingers. The Falcons play the undefeated Panthers two more times this season with the Jaguars and Saints making up the other two games.
The NFC is surprisingly top-heavy, and the Vikings (8-5) and red-hot Seahawks (7-5) have a strong grip on both spots. The Falcons, at 6-6, would likely have to win their final four games to finish 10-6 if they want to even have a shot at the playoffs. That situation also depends on the Seahawks and Vikings losing at least two of their final games.
The Falcons’ hot start may have been an aberration, given that they have spent the other half of the season as a losing team. Nonetheless, after such a hot start, the Falcons must be kicking themselves for letting a golden opportunity to get back into the playoffs slip through their hands.
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