The Atlanta Falcons no longer play like a team trying to win.
They play like a team trying not to lose.
And when you’re trying not to lose, that’s when you make mistakes. Mistakes of an elementary and stupid nature. Mistakes that turn 21-0 leads into 22-21 losses.
The Falcons are being coached not to lose. Head coach Mike Smith said so himself in the aftermath of the Falcons latest debacle. This time, they ventured all the way to London to tie a team record, coughing up their biggest lead ever in a loss. At least the Brits got to see history being made.
They also got to witness Smith throttle back the Falcons offense at the end of the first half, and set the tone for the putrid second half to follow.
Detroit took the field at Wembley Stadium behind the top-ranked defensive unit in the entire NFL. So what did the Falcons do?
They immediately turned the calendar back to 2012. They took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in 10 plays. Quarterback Matt Ryan missed his first pass, and then hit five in a row, including the touchdown pass to Devonta Freeman. Steven Jackson ran four times for 16 yards, better production than we normally see.
A holding call helped stop the Lions first series, and Ryan and his mates were back at it again. This time they went 56 yards in six plays. Ryan was 4 for 4 for 40 yards on the drive, which ended with a scoring pass to Bear Pascoe.
The Falcon defense, aided by the inaction of Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, and the Lions top three tight ends, continued to hold Matthew Stafford and the Lions at bay.
Midway through the second quarter, the Falcons struck again. Their fourth possession lasted 12 plays, went 89 yards, and ended with Jackson bursting over the goal unmolested from the one. Ryan on the drive: 5 for 5 for 56 yards.
So effortless. So easy. So against the top defense in the league. So incredible that Smith decided not to keep hammering the Lions when the Falcons got the ball back with 1:18 left in the half.
“We were up 21, three scores,” noted Smith, accurately, in his postgame press conference. “We did not want to turn the ball over. That was my decision. You know, like any game, there’s many decisions that can be discussed.”
Okay, coach. Let’s start with the message that you sent to your team. Ryan, also speaking at the postgame press conference, received this message: “I think, where we were at in that game, felt like we had a great first half. We were in the driver’s seat. Had a lot of momentum going into the second half. I’m okay with that call.”
In other words, the prevailing attitude was, “Hey, we got this!” And maybe even, “This game is o-vah!”
Instead, as cornerback Desmond Trufant told Vaughn McClure of espn.com, “It felt good in the first half. We were hitting and stopping them. Then, in the second half, I don’t know what happened. We didn’t put our foot on the gas.”
Detroit began the second half with an ominous 15-play, 7:06 drive that went 76 yards. But Stafford threw incomplete twice from the four, and the Lions had to settle for a field goal.
The Falcons went three and out, with Ryan getting sacked and fumbling on the first play. Ominously.
Then the Falcons defense pulled out a classic breakdown. On third and 25, mind you, Stafford found Golden Tate behind the Falcon defense for a 59-yard touchdown. It appeared that Trufant handed Tate off to safety Kemal Ishmael, who was neither as wide nor as deep as Tate.
Ryan then got into the act. He tossed perhaps the worst pass of his career. A pass so pitiful that only one receiver was within 10 yards of the ball, and that receiver was Cassius Vaughn of the Lions.
“I never saw him,” said Ryan, “and that’s a mistake you cannot make in order to win football games. That one hurts.
Julio Jones, in hot pursuit, tackled Vaughn at the seven, and the Lions had to settle for a field goal, but the reprieve was momentary.
After a five and out, the Lions scored another touchdown. The score stood 21-19 with 3:56 to go. The Falcons needed three first downs to run out the clock.
They got two.
Then self-destructed. An inexcusable holding penalty stopped the clock, and Jones stopped it again by dropping a screen pass on third down. “Offensively,” said Ryan, “we did not do our job.”
Added Smith, “We did not execute our training that we spent all week training on.”
All of which sounds like a team that has quit believing in itself. And its coach. These guys can’t win because they’re trying not to lose.
Compare and contrast with what Lions wide receiver Jeremy Ross told Vaughn: “We don’t give up. We keep fighting. We believe in what we can do. We keep pushing. We keep driving, keep fighting. We don’t stop.”
Sounds a lot like the Falcons, circa 2012.