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Falcons avoid embarrassment, but loss still means it’s over

6:32 pm December 13, 2009, by Jeff Schultz

One week after embarrassment, the Falcons showed a heartbeat. We saw fight and resolve and a few things that could not possibly have been anticipated free of hallucinogens, starting with Chris Redman throwing for more yards than Drew Brees (did that just happen?).

One week after stepping back in time with a 34-7 loss to Philadelphia that humiliated the players, irritated the owner and led to the most significant questions yet in the Mike Smith/Thomas Dimitroff regime, the Falcons inched forward with their dented masses.

Yes, they lost. No, there are no good losses. Yes, John Abraham probably spoke for all afterward when he said, “Moral victories are for teams that don’t think they’re going to win. If you’re 0-11 and you’re playing an 11-0 team and you fight and you lose, then you say, ‘Oh we could’ve won.’ No. That’s not happening over here.”

But are there degrees of demoralization?

The Falcons lost to New Orleans, 26-23. They’re 6-7 with three games left. They’re not going to make the playoffs, at least not without a series of results and implausible tiebreaker scenarios and overcoming odds roughly equivalent to that of a unanimous Congressional vote on health care (or anything).

But considering they just came close to upsetting the undefeated Saints despite missing their starting quarterback (Matt Ryan), starting running back (Michael Turner), starting right guard (Harvey Dahl) and a blur of other fallen bodies that have fallen since training camp, it could have been worse.

Shouldn’t it have been worse?

The Saints came into the game leading the NFL in offense and scoring. They had 56 touchdowns in 12 games. One more and they would’ve needed approval from NATO.

But the Falcons held them to a relatively paltry 26 points (three touchdowns). They ran their own offense efficiently, chewing up time and keeping Brees on the sideline. They rarely made mental miscues. They committed only four penalties – one of those being a questionable interference call on Brent Grimes that negated a third-quarter interception. (Smith didn’t consider it questionable — he considered it a travesty, so much so that he spiked his headphones.)

Actually, the only thing worth taking issue with came in the final minutes. After the Saints kicked a field goal to take the lead with 4:42 left, the Falcons inexplicably opened their next possession in a “Wildcat” formation with Jerious Norwood. Why did offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey do this? Smith said only that the team had run three trick plays earlier in the game with some success (actually, two worked and one didn’t).

But when Norwood handed off to Eric Weems for the Falcons’ third reverse of the game, he was dropped for a 12-yard loss back to the 24. On the next play, Redman threw an interception. He underthrew Roddy White, but not Jonathan Vilma. Given the circumstances, it was the worst two-play sequence of the season.

Saints coach Sean Payton apparently wanted to one-up Mularkey. He called a fake field goal on the ensuing drive, passing up a sure three points that could have expanded the lead to six. It failed and the Falcons took over on downs. Extended life.

“I thought we were going to go down and score,” said Tony Gonzalez.

But after driving from the 15 to the Saints’ 46, the Falcons stalled. On fourth-and-2, Redman checked down to Jason Snelling, who was only a yard past the line of scrimmage. He made the catch but was immediately was tackled by Vilma. Checkmate.

There’s really only one tangible goal remaining: a winning season. That would make two years in a row. And that, as you know, hasn’t been done here before.

Two months ago, nobody figured consecutive winning seasons would be the objective. But two months ago, nobody figured a three-point loss to New Orleans would be a step forward.


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