Falcons: Too close for comfort, and more takeaways from Week 9

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For the first time in 2020, the Atlanta Falcons string together back-to-back wins to move to 3-6 going into the bye week. Their 34-27 victory over Denver was total domination for three-and-a-half quarters. However, the final eight minutes were ones the Falcons would like to forget.

Buck the AFC trend?

For the past several years, the Falcons have not had much to cheer for when playing against AFC opponents. Since 2017, Atlanta has only won two AFC games prior to yesterday’s win. In the 2018 season, the Falcons dropped all four games to the AFC North. Only once did they avoid getting blown out as the Bengals managed a late-game score to win by one point. Their two prior wins came against Jacksonville in 2019 and the Jets in 2017.

The Falcons still have to face off against the Raiders, Chargers, and Chiefs this season. The Chargers have narrowly dropped all their games against Carolina, Tampa, and New Orleans. The Raiders managed to defeat both Carolina and New Orleans but were hammered by Tampa. Meanwhile, Kansas City still has yet to face New Orleans or Tampa but managed to squeak by Carolina in Week 9.

Close call to end the game

A Ricardo Allen interception gave the Falcons the ball deep into Denver territory. That then set up a Todd Gurley score to put the Falcons ahead 34-13 with eight minutes left in the game. Would it be wrong of you to assume the Falcons could put the game away? No, because up until that point, Atlanta had put together perhaps their best defensive performance. However, Denver quickly made fans sweat after scoring 14 points in the blink of an eye, courtesy of Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy touchdown catches. In between possessions, the Falcons managed to recover onside kicks from Denver but could not get a first down to ice the game.

Deion Jones recovered a late onside kick after the Broncos brought it to within seven. However, in their attempts to run the clock out, the Falcons were called for a late offensive penalty that stopped the clock, despite Denver not having any more timeouts. This gave Denver the ball back with 53 seconds instead of under 20 seconds.

“All these games do down to the wire. Everybody has got fight. Everybody has dog in them. These guys, we knew they were going to come out fighting. Come out slinging that ball around. There are only a few games a week that don’t go down to the wire.” – Raheem Morris.

The Falcons then applied defensive pressure to see the game out, holding Drew Lock and the Broncos to a four and out. After being the joke of the NFL for the better part of 2020, the Falcons defense has stood tall during the final drive the past two weeks. Blidi-Wreh Wilson picked off Teddy Bridgewater to seal their Thursday night matchup in Week 8.

Why is Dirk Koetter still running the ball on 2nd and 16?

With the Falcons leading 27-13 and under 11 minutes to play, Matt Ryan was sacked for a 6-yard loss. To counter the sack, Dirk Koetter then decides to do what he’s done all season long and hand the ball off. Todd Gurley, who did not have a good day running the ball with 40 yards on 12 carries to that point, only managed to gain one yard and give the Falcons an improbable 3rd and 15, which they failed to convert.

Being that Denver scored on their prior possession, the Falcons were not in a “kill clock” situation. However, they did manage to force Denver into a turnover shortly after, via a Ricardo Allen interception, to eventually set up a four-yard Gurley touchdown run to go up 34-13.

However, how are we nine weeks into the season, and Koetter is still killing drives with his unsuccessful 2nd and long handoffs? I fear that if Raheem Morris is somehow retained as the Falcons head coach for 2021 and beyond, he would be inclined to keep Koetter on board as the offensive coordinator.

Offense spreading the wealth

The Falcons were without star receiver Calvin Ridley due to a foot injury sustained the week prior against Carolina. To this point, Ridley leads the team in targets (68), receptions (43), touchdowns (6), first downs (34), and yards after catch (197). With Ridley out of the lineup, Ryan had to look down the depth chart to fill his absence. He connected with three different receivers for touchdown passes (Jones, Powell, Zacchaeus)

While Brandon Powell and Olamide Zacchaeus are no Cavin Ridley, they helped alleviate his absence by reaching the end zone. Powell scored his first career touchdown to give the Falcons a 14 point lead, his only catch of the day. Zacchaeus scored his second career touchdown on a bomb from Matt Ryan, who threw the ball 55 yards in the air to see it land in Zacchaeus’ arms as he was in the end zone. Zacchaeus also achieved his first 100-yard game.

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While Zacchaeus holds the record for the longest touchdown pass in Matt Ryan and Atlanta Falcons history for his 93-yard touchdown reception from Ryan against Carolina last season, that was his only catch of the game; keeping him under 100 yards. Zacchaeus ended his Week 9 matchup against Denver with four catches for 103 yards.

“The offense did a great job; those two touchdowns came on third down. You take those two touchdowns away, that’s a close ball game. Credit to Matt for staying in there and slinging it and those guys coming in and stepping up and playing big. Shout out to those guys, you have to give credit. Those guys have been working hard every day in practice.” – Todd Gurley.

Hayden Hurst also managed to have a career day in receptions as he pulled in seven passes from Matt Ryan. His 62 yards on the day was his third time going for over 60 yards in 2020. His two seasons in Baltimore only saw him go over 60 once. Hurst is proving to be a steady option for Matt Ryan. Five of the last six games have seen him go for over 50 yards.

Quietly on the day, Matt Ryan moved past Peyton Manning for the most completions through a quarterback’s first 13 seasons with 4,683 and counting. Some fans will balk at the idea that Ryan and Manning are on the same level in any category, but to be able to mention both quarterbacks in the same breath is somethings Falcons fans should relish. Having a quarterback as reliable and unwavering as Ryan is something most NFL teams fail to obtain.

John Elway played football for 16 years in the NFL, all with Denver. He didn’t win his first Super Bowl until season 15, at age 37. Matt Ryan isn’t done and will enter season 14 in 2021 with the Falcons and new coaching staff. He may not end his career with a Super Bowl ring, but what he’s done to this point is deserving of a bust in Canton. Fans nowadays are too quick to call a Super Bowl window closed. A couple of defensive pieces and the Falcons aren’t too far off from being a truly competitive team. 

Climbing up the division

Since the Falcons won in Week 9 and Carolina lost, the two teams are tied for third place, only three games behind Tampa and four games behind New Orleans. The Falcons have been at the bottom of the NFC South for most of 2020. They still have to face off against New Orleans and Tampa twice. Of course, any hopes of a playoff berth would mean the Falcons have to sweep both teams. It makes it even harder when you see New Orleans down Tampa 38-3 on Sunday Night Football. When the Falcons and Saints face off in Week 11, we will see if Atlanta has finally turned a corner.

 

 

 

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