Sometimes statistics can't tell the whole story of a game. I would argue it's usually the case that they don't. However, in the Falcons 27-26 loss to the Saints at home on Sunday, there are a few stats that truly do.
The Falcons defense looked as stout as we've seen them look through three quarters on Sunday. They were getting off the field on third down. They created a turnover. They sacked Jameis Winston four times. It should be noted that the Falcons had 17 sacks total in 2021. So, four sack in one game to open the 2022 season? That's the direction this team wanted to be heading in. As the first few minutes of the fourth quarter began, though, the game took a 180 degree turn for the Falcons.
With a 16-point lead to open the final quarter, the Falcons saw said lead slip away as the Saints kept producing more runs, more plays, more points, just more. So, what happened? What went wrong? A lot. And Grady Jarrett is right in what he said postgame that you have to look at this game collectively, not just at the fourth quarter.
"There's more than one play that determines the outcome of the game," Jarrett said.
But this wasn't one play. What transpired in the fourth quarter was an accumulation of plays. Jarrett is right. One play doesn't change the outcome. But enough explosive plays strung together can, and this is what we saw happen to the Falcons defense on Sunday afternoon.
"I think it was the big plays," Rashaan Evans said of the moments that change the game. "Jameis (Winston) - for some reason - it started clicking for him. He was completing all of his passes. We allowed some big plays to allow them to kick a field goal and get back into the game. We have to be better in the fourth. We have to finish these teams."
Prior to the start of the fourth quarter, Winston has less than 60 passing yards. Yep. Less than 60.
He had been sacked four times. He was playing under duress in the pocket. That changed dramatically in the fourth quarter when the Saints sped up their tempo, and things started to turn around for the Saints quarterback. And when things clicked (like Evans said) the Falcons didn't have an answer.
"Those plays were pivotal for them to get back into the game," Evans continued. "If you cut those plays down and maybe a couple calls and maybe some other things like going for it on fourth down, stuff like that, it may be a different game."
It wasn't, though, and in the fourth quarter alone, Winston surpassed 200 passing yards to mount a comeback.
Of those 200 passing yards, 174 came from individual explosive plays that racked up more than 15 yards a pop. There were seven of those plays in the fourth quarter, by the way. Some simple math brings us to the Falcons giving up an average of 25 yards a catch in those seven plays alone. That number checks out considering Winston hit Juwan Johnson for 26 yards to start the fourth quarter. Tack on another 20 yards a piece for Chris Olave and Michael Thomas, and that's just three of the seven explosive plays of which I am referring to.
If the Falcons offense is producing simultaneously at this clip, it's a different game. The Saints don't have the time to catch up. But they weren't, so New Orleans stuck around and accumulated one explosive play after another that ultimately brought us to the final score.
"We allowed them - as an offense - to stick around," Marcus Mariota said postgame. "... If you're not scoring in the red zone you keep the door open."
However, the blame of the loss is not placed solely on the offense's shoulders for not responding in the redzone. It's also not on the defense for allowing these explosive plays. This is - without question - a team loss. Blame can be shared here as it has been before. And look, I could write about how the Falcons are going to fix it, but it's not up to me to tell you how they're going to do it. It's up to this team to show you.
Richie Grant said after the game that there are lessons to be learned.
"I think we did do a lot of good things. Put a lot of good things on film," Grant said. "But we're gonna learn from the bad. Take it. Chew it. Swallow it. Move on."
But even as they "move on" from this game, don't forget it. Athletes and coaches say every day that they're going to wash it when it comes to a poor performance. The way I look at it, though, is that if this team has a chip on its shoulder like it claims it does, make sure a result like this doesn't happen again. Use it as fuel. Don't simply wash it. Feel it.
Care about it so much that you can't sleep at night to see it happen again.
After the game Arthur Smith concluded his press conference by noting that the outside expectations (i.e. the national media) will "continue to write (the Falcons) obituary" after this loss.
"Write whatever y'all want. You guys ranked us 45th. You buried us in May. Bury us again. We don't care. We'll get back to work," Smith said. "... If we have the right mindset we will improve from this and become a better team."
As Smith said later, the Falcons have 16 games to prove it.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in the first game of 2022.