Atlanta Falcons playoff dreams buried in Buffalo snow
For most rational fans of the Atlanta Falcons, the belief that this team was bound for the playoffs was a pipe dream. Everything about the team screamed fraudulent and guaranteed first-round exit, from the suspect play calling to the veteran quarterback who’s eating up too much of the salary cap.
Fortunately, those dreams were finally put to rest, as the Falcons ended their 2021 road excursion with a 29-15 loss to the Buffalo Bills in a very snowy wonderland.
At first glance, that final score seems to be a positive, right? A Falcons team massively undermanned going up against yet another team with a winning record? Surely, they were going to lose by 30 points at a minimum.
The Falcons tried to make the game interesting, though they were given major help to do so.
Those who went this route probably didn’t expect Atlanta to score the first points of this contest. Granted, their initial opening drive yielded zero points, but a Thomas Morstead punt fielded by Marquez Stevenson was punched out by Avery Williams, and Jake Kumerow recovered the ball in the endzone.
An interesting point to be made here: according to Falcons beat reporter Mike Rothstein, this was the Falcons’ first punt fielded for a safety in the regular season since 2008. Honestly, this is pretty laughable, but when one considers the rarity of a safety actually occurring, it’s not as surprising. Case in point: Atlanta’s last two of the scoring play both came in the postseason, once against the Giants and one against the Seahawks.
From there, the Bills essentially took control of the game, with quarterback Josh Allen gashing the Falcons’ front seven to the tune of two scores on the ground while simultaneously finding the open man routinely against the defense.
That said, Allen’s truthfully the reason the Falcons stayed in this contest. Allen’s inaccuracy at times led to the Bills not truly gaining any real momentum of pulling away against this Falcons squad, especially considering the three interceptions he threw. While two of them were deflections, yes, the third one was a broken play that A.J. Terrell, fortunately, came up with, and while Duron Harmon did pick one of the deflections off, he had a different opportunity on Buffalo’s first drive that he dropped (Buffalo scored three plays later after Terrell got flagged for an undisciplined DPI on fourth down from the one).
Now, let’s turn the attention back to the offense for the Falcons. Offensively, they were pedestrian throughout this entire game, and it showed. Receivers were dropping passes, couldn’t get open from Bills defenders (in fairness, Buffalo’s pass defense is the league’s best), and the trenches were once again dominated by the opposing team.
There were really only two “big plays” by the offense the entire game: Kyle Pitts’ 61-yard catch-and-run which ended in a Mike Davis touchdown run and a 24-yard catch-and-run by Russell Gage which gave Atlanta the halftime lead (and their final points of the game).
Yet, the offense is primarily driven by the 14-year veteran Matt Ryan, and this game is probably one he’d like to forget. Not only were initial Pro Football Focus reports mentioning this might be his worst game of the season (debatable), he only threw for 197 yards, was sacked five times, and even lost a fumble to Gregory Rousseau.
However, the final offensive possession is where Ryan decided to let his inner “Psycho Tom Brady” impression come out, but it ended up doing more harm for the Falcons than good.
Matt Ryan singlehandedly lost the Atlanta Falcons this game offensively after his outburst.
With the score at the final margin, Ryan attempted to scramble into the endzone, and at first glance, while he appeared to be diving into the painted grass, his knee hit the ground and he also was hit late by Bills defender Jordan Poyer. Ryan immediately got up, got into Poyer’s face, and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard penalty that was to be enforced on the kickoff.
Except, it wasn’t. The NFL decided back in 2018 to consider head-first dives as a feet-first slide.
"“A quarterback does not have to slide feet first to be considered to be giving himself up,” the league’s online rules say. “Regardless whether the slide is feet first or head first, as long as he gives himself up, he should receive the protections afforded to him as a player in a defenseless posture.”"
Because of this, despite Ryan not being touched until after crossing the plane, he was considered down where he began the dive. As a result, not only was the touchdown revoked, the penalty was then enforced from where he was down. Two plays later, Atlanta turned the ball over on downs, and Buffalo ran out the clock.
There’s really no denying it here. Look, fans and media pundits alike can go off about the NFL’s emphasis on taunting, but in this case, Ryan truly cost Atlanta a chance to score and trim the deficit.
So, for the fourth consecutive year, January football will not feature our Falcons. In fact, this loss solidified that the team will finish below .500 again. However, there is a sort of silver lining for the final game. While it is against the hated rival Saints, they’re still technically alive in the playoff picture. A win for them against Atlanta combined with either a loss by San Francisco (@ Rams) or Philadelphia (vs. Cowboys) would put them into the dance.
How apropos would it be for the Falcons to not only sweep their hated rivals but also clinch a second-place finish in the South (and a 2022 second-place schedule) and prevent them from making the playoffs?