ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Buffalo Bills were celebrating as the Falcons left field. The Highmark Stadium crowd was losing its collective mind, reveling in far more than Sunday’s 29-15 victory after clocks struck zero.
The Bills had just clinched a postseason berth. The Falcons were eliminated from playoff contention that exact same moment.
Euphoria for one, dejection for the other.
Duron Harmon felt that juxtaposition deep down, because he knows what it's like to be on the other side. The veteran safety's a three-time Super Bowl champion, for goodness sakes. With memories of being so high, the low hits that much harder.
Say what you will about the Falcons playoff chances. Throw a Jim Mora GIF at them. Remind everyone of the team's minuscule playoff odds heading into Sunday's game. Call the Falcons undeserving if you want to be petty, with a finger toward a lopsided point differential.
Now, a point of no dispute: the Falcons were motivated by the prospect of making the postseason, even as a long shot. When the odds drop to zero, especially for a group of fighters who won't tap out, it's a tough thing to take.
"It's very difficult," Harmon said in his postgame press conference. "That's why we play the game. …You come back to play meaningful games. You play to reach the playoffs and give yourself a chance to play for and win championships. We fell short in that effort, so it's tough.
"We're a young team and this will be a feeling that everyone in this locker room remembers, leaving the field as the Bills clinched a playoff berth, and use it as some type of motivation to get back to this point, playing meaningful football in later in the season. The only difference is that we'll be the ones clinching a playoff spot."
That's the goal heading into 2022, fueled at least in part by this season's disappointments. One of them has to be the Falcons' inability to take down top teams. They haven't beaten anyone who currently has a winning record.
Sunday's game against Buffalo was an opportunity to do that, to topple and upset an opponent superior on paper. They battled the Bills tough. They kept it close but weren't able to pull it out. The final score will show a double-digit differential, which was also present against the Patriots, Cowboys, 49ers, Eagles and twice to the Buccaneers. All those teams currently possess playoff seeds. They don't have to beat every contender on the schedule. They do need to beat a few.
The Falcons have to follow a simple, though not always easy to accomplish formula. Beat the lower-level teams you should. Go .500 against everyone else. Do that and you're almost always in.
The Falcons checked one box. They beat teams they were supposed to beat, struggling teams with equal or lesser talent levels. They didn't upset anyone that looked like a clear favorite on paper.
Good coaching and performance under pressure – don’t forget the Falcons are 7-2 in one-score games – got the Falcons this far. They'll need to upgrade the talent base, to look better on paper, to get over the proverbial hump and go toe-to-toe with the teams above them.
The schemes are good. So are the play callers. The young foundation is solid. They fight like heck.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Buffalo Bills during Week 17.
There are holes, however, in too many places. That gets the Falcons in trouble, especially when they make mistakes against good teams.
The goal moving forward, with one game remaining before we wrap this campaign, is to learn from the good experiences and bad, and then improve the roster. That'll put them in prime position to take that next step, one they couldn't make in 2021.
Part of that is hanging on to the feeling pervaded leaving the field on Sunday.
"It's disappointing," quarterback Matt Ryan said in his presser. "You work so hard during the offseason to give yourself a chance to be playing in the playoffs, with an opportunity to make a run at the Super Bowl. When you fall short, it's tough.
"I am proud of the way the guys have fought all year. There has been no let up. Guys have been resilient. There was a lot that the younger players on this team can learn from. There are a lot of things we can be better at moving forward and be better off for these experiences. I think it's going to make us harder, tougher and better as we move forward."
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.