Atlanta started off the year against three fairly tough NFC East opponents. The Falcons won all three games in similar fashion by overcoming fourth quarter deficits. However, 3-0 was 3-0 and Atlanta had shown signs that they could be potential Super Bowl contenders.
If three nailbiting fourth quarter comebacks against mediocre teams was not convincing enough, an obliteration of the Houston Texans in week 4 may have turned even the biggest doubters heads. Although Houston is no playoff team, that kind of domination against any NFL team is impressive. The offense looked explosive and the defense was physical and opportunistic.
However, ever since, Atlanta just has not looked the same. The offense that was once a juggernaut has turned into sludge. Matt Ryan has just 5 TDs to go along with 5 INTS in his last four games, and the numbers actually might be better than his actual play. At times, Ryan has looked like the man with ice running through his veins that Atlanta fans have come to know and love, but his decision making has been absolutely brutal over this stretch. He has had several key interceptions, and most of them have come on balls he should have never thrown. While Devonta Freeman and the offensive line have stepped up big for Atlanta this year, Ryan has seen a drop off from last year’s play.
Even though Ryan has not necessarily performed up to par, Atlanta still could have walked into week 9 with an 8-0 record if it was not for the uncountable amount of toothless errors. The Falcons turned the ball over on downs due to a bad snap, fumbled not once but twice in the redzone, and had a punt blocked that was recovered for a touchdown in their 31-21 loss to the division rival Saints. It was not much different against the Titans, as Atlanta narrowly escaped with a 10-7 victory. However, Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers trumps both of those. Atlanta turned the ball over four times, two of which were nice plays by Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander, but the other two were huge mental lapses in the redzone. Early in the second quarter, Atlanta was driving to take an early lead, but a horrific snap inside the 10-yard line cost Atlanta the chance to take that lead. If one pee wee football-like error was not enough, Matt Ryan fumbled again in the redzone on their first posession of the second half due to a miscommunication on a handoff. Atlanta managed to rally the troops and take the game to overtime, but it never should have been in question.
Even after Sunday’s embarrassing home loss to Tampa Bay, Atlanta still sits at impressive 6-2 with a great shot at locking up a playoff spot. There’s no question the last four weeks have been a totally different team than the first four week, so which one is going to show up the rest of the way?
Atlanta’s offense was supposed to be a good offense coming into the season, and that was before this new discovery of what was an extinct running game. Devonta Freeman and this offensive line have offered a whole new element to the offense. Matt Ryan has been too good for too long to expect him to keep making these kind of mental errors. Late in games, Ryan has shown he is indeed one of the best in the business. Look for Atlanta to switch into the hurry up offense more throughout the game, allowing Matt Ryan and this offense to get into a rhythm. Falcons fans have seen in the past how good Ryan can be when operating a fast paced, no huddle offense.
However, none of that matters if the Falcons cannot punch the ball in the endzone. Atlanta has scored touchdowns on just 45% of their redzone opportunities in the last 3 weeks, a number that should be around 70%. There is no way this number will remain this low, and there is no way Atlanta continues to make the mindless mistakes that have cost them two of the last three contests. Atlanta does have some holes, but they are on the defensive side of the ball. This offense will return to being the offensive juggernaut it was over the first four weeks, and if this defense can continue to improve, Atlanta still has a great shot to make some noise in this year’s playoffs.