It has been a long and difficult season for the Atlanta Falcons, and if there was ever a fitting fashion to end this particular campaign, the team endured it in losing to the Carolina Panthers, 21-20, on Sunday.
After a back-and-forth game that featured 4 lead changes, the Falcons were driving on what looked to be a game-clinching drive with less than a minute remaining. Matt Ryan was 4-for-4 on the drive, and the ball was already on the Atlanta 43-yard line with plenty of time to spare in order to get Matt Bryant in position for the potential game-winner. Then, disaster struck, as young center Joe Hawley snapped the ball unexpectedly while Ryan wasn’t looking, creating a 16-yard loss and an ensuing penalty that generated a 10-second runoff.
Just like that, it was over.
No walk-off win for Tony Gonzalez. No “positive momentum” heading into the off-season. Nothing.
To be honest, the ending was nearly perfect as a metaphor for the season, but that didn’t make it any less gut-wrenching. The team battled for all of 60 minutes on this particular day, facing off with a much better football team and playing them to a draw, but not even the “win one for Tony” movement could generate a win. As for Gonzalez, he performed admirably (as you would expect) in his send-off, catching 4 balls for 56 yards, and as a whole, the skill players on the Falcons offense were very good in this game.
Unfortunately, Atlanta couldn’t play 7-on-7 in this game, and the offensive line was a complete trainwreck for the majority of the afternoon. That unit allowed a staggering nine sacks on Matt Ryan throughout the day, and it is frankly a testament to Ryan’s play-making ability and toughness that he was able to produce 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (including some costly wide receiver drops) while laying flat on his back for much of the day. Coming into the day, we all knew that the offensive line was a desperate “need” area for the Falcons, but this may have been the low point of the season, and if it wasn’t already, it is the primary focus of the off-season.
Ryan’s big day also came with two franchise records, as he broke his own marks for both completions and pass attempts in a season. Breaking both records probably isn’t a great thing for the offense, though, as the running game (which again failed to crack 100 yards here) completely abandoned the rest of the group, and with trailing scores in virtually every game, the team was forced to pass.
Positively, this was the second straight quality game from both the defense and Roddy White. Carolina generated only 283 yards of total offense against what was a stingy Falcons defense, and much of that total came on a long run by Deangelo Williams that actually ended in a fumble caused by a chase-down effort from Robert Alford. Both young corners (Alford and Desmond Trufant) played excellent ball in the game, and with a young crew of willing linebackers, the back seven could be in good shape moving forward. For White, it was another big day with 8 catches for 91 yards and a score, and he looks to be fully healthy as a “1-A” option for Ryan along with a recovering Julio Jones.
There will certainly be more on both Tony Gonzalez (a retrospective of some sort) and the team as the off-season arrives, but in Week 17, the Falcons fell just short of sending both Gonzalez and the rest of the team on their way in a positive manner.