Atlanta Falcons utterly collapse in 22-21 loss to Detroit Lions


The Atlanta Falcons are toast.

The team held a massive early lead over the Detroit Lions on Sunday morning in London, England, but in a way that is truly befitting of this year’s team, they imploded. When the dust settled, the Lions emerged with a 22-21 victory, and that was that.

Early indications were exceedingly positive for the Falcons, as they came out of the gate swinging. Matt Ryan and company took the ball at the Atlanta 20-yard line after a touchback, but the less than ideal field position was just about the only hiccup on the way to an 80-yard touchdown. Steven Jackson was effective with 16 yards on four carries, Ryan connected with Roddy White for two first downs, Levine Toilolo caught a pass (!!!!) for 15 yards, and the drive was capped with a 7-yard touchdown on a swing pass to rookie running back Devonta Freeman. In seemingly the blink of an eye, it was 7-0 in favor of the good guys, and it was a welcomed (and unexpected) start.

The strong early returns continued on the ensuing drive, as the Falcons forced a punt from the Lions with a little bit of help from an ill-timed holding penalty enforced against Detroit. In short order, the offense took the field and continued its onslaught, as Matt Ryan found backup tight end Bear Pascoe for a 1-yard touchdown after a defensive pass interference against Roddy White set up the 1st-and-goal situation at the Detroit 1-yard-line. It was a beautiful 56-yard drive in just six plays, and the offense was clicking on all cylinders for the first time in weeks.

From there, the defense continued to make waves, as the group bowed up to force Detroit into a tough decision on the fringe of field goal range on the next drive, and after a quick punt from the Atlanta offense, the front seven dominated in forcing the Lions into a three-and-out. If you are scoring at home, Mike Nolan’s defense survived the first three possessions of the game with no points, and every stateside Falcons fan rejoiced.

The dream scenario continued for Atlanta, but not before an extremely odd sequence. Matt Ryan threw an “interception” in the end zone that was quickly nullified by a defensive pass interference call, but on the ensuing INT return, Ryan attempted to make a low tackle, and he was whistled for a personal foul. This blunder took away the potential upside of a 1st-and-goal on the 1-yard line scenario, but the offense was undeterred. Steven Jackson later capped a 12-play, 89-yard touchdown march with a 1-yard plunge that gave the birds a wildly unlikely (and tremendous) 21-0 lead with less than four minutes remaining in the first half, and for good measure, Jackson became the 19th player in NFL history to eclipse 11,000 career rushing yards.

Somehow, things got even better before the halftime break, despite the Lions putting together their best drive of the day. Detroit had battled into field goal range, but Robert Alford stepped in front of a Matthew Stafford throw for an interception to halt all momentum, and that punctuated an incredible half of football from the defense. The offense pulled the plug on attempting to add to their 21-point lead (typical Mike Smith here), and after an extravaganza of football, the Atlanta Falcons led by a 21-0 margin after 30 minutes of play.

Of course, the Atlanta Falcons could not “walk through the rain drops” for the entirety of the day in London, and the first drive of the second half was a harsh reminder of that fact. The Lions took the kick-off and marched 76 yards in 15 plays while keeping possession for more than seven minutes. It appeared for all the world as if Detroit would create their first touchdown of the day, but after a couple of important plays by the Atlanta defense (including a near-INT from defensive tackle Tyson Jackson), the Falcons escaped with only a 22-yard field goal from the Lions to keep a 21-3 advantage. It was certainly not an ideal defensive possession, as Detroit repeatedly converted third downs, but in the end, it was a “stop”.

The offense hiccuped in a mighty way on their first possession, going three-and-out with the aid of some horrendously conservative play-calling from Dirk Koetter (with a hat-tip to Mike Smith, I’m sure). That was magnified when Matt Bosher uncorked an awful punt (29 yards) to allow the Lions to take control of the ball in Falcons territory.

On cue, the Lions capitalized in a big way, and they did it under highly unlikely circumstances. After back-to-back penalties gave the Lions a 2nd-and-35 situation, Detroit connected on a 10-yard pass to lower that threshold to 3rd-and-25. The worst nightmare of every Atlanta fan was realized, however, as Matthew Stafford created extra time with his legs and exposed Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael in a huge way, connecting with Golden Tate on a 59-yard touchdown pass that was comically wide open considering the circumstance. That touchdown cut the advantage to 21-10 and sent every nightmare scenario into action.

The disaster possibility continued on the following possession, as the Falcons appeared to be rolling until the inexplicable happened. Matt Ryan “connected” with Lions defensive back Cassius Vaughn, and it is tough to overstate how bad of a throw this was in real time. It appeared as if Ryan simply thought that Vaughn was a member of the Falcons as he willfully threw the ball in his direction with no member of the Atlanta squad in sight, and only a chase-down tackle by Julio Jones kept it from being a defensive touchdown. That interception led to a quick field goal from the Lions, but fortunately, the defense “rose up” in stopping what was seemingly a guaranteed touchdown on the other end in preserving a 21-13 lead.

As the fourth quarter was in the early stages, the offense produced yet another quick punt, and that gave the Lions the ball back with just under 12 minutes remaining in what was a one possession game. Detroit methodically responded with a lengthy touchdown drive, and the Falcons simply could not execute with regard to tackling throughout the possession. The Lions needed 13 plays to cover the 69 yards needed to cross the goal line on a throw from Stafford to Theo Riddick, but if you are searching (desperately) for a bright side, Desmond Trufant made a massive play to stop Detroit on the 2-point conversion attempt, and with that, Atlanta held on to a slim, 21-19 lead.

With the game (and any semblance of playoff visions) on the line, the offense took the ball back with less than four minutes remaining. Steven Jackson ran the ball twice for a total of six yards, setting up a massive third down opportunity, and Harry Douglas came up huge with a game-saving catch after a somewhat errant throw from Ryan. That first down created optimism, but when Ryan connected with Julio Jones on a 22-yard reception later in the drive, that optimism turned into full-blown confidence by the two-minute warning.

From there, the Lions had only one timeout remaining, and the Birds needed only one additional first down to fully preserve the victory. Of course, Atlanta did not make things easy, as a holding penalty on James Stone stopped the clock, and a crucial drop by Julio Jones (on a wide-open quick screen) forced a punt that allowed the Lions to have more than 90 seconds on their final possession that began from the 7-yard line.

Matthew Stafford found Golden Tate for 32 yards on first down, and suddenly, the Lions were at the 39-yard line. Then, Theo Riddick made an insane, one-handed catch to cross midfield, and the panic was very real. After a bizarre sequence that included an inexplicable timeout called by Mike Smith (that resulted in me saying this for public consumption), Lions kicker Matt Prater missed a 43-yard field goal that would have given the Falcons a victory. However, Detroit was whistled for a delay of game penalty, allowing him to attempt a 48-yarder on the next play, and of course, Prater split the uprights to effectively end the season for Atlanta.

To be honest, there were many positives and negatives in this game. Matt Ryan was electric early, completing 9 of his first 10 passes for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns on the first two drives, and for the majority of the game, the defense was highly competent. Then, the ball began rolling downhill after the halftime break, the tackling fell apart on the defensive side, and this game will be remembered for Ryan’s horrific interception and some utterly inept coaching from Mike Smith.

At 2-6, the 2014 season is virtually over from a playoff perspective for the Atlanta Falcons, and while we will have more analysis in the coming days, there is a singular question emerging from London.

Should Mike Smith be gone after the bye week?