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Bair: What went wrong during losing run that eliminated Falcons from playoff contention

Atlanta couldn't take advantage of weak, there-for-the-taking NFC South

BALTIMORE – Grady Jarrett didn't bother trying to hide it. Anger and disappointment was clear and present on his face.

The veteran defensive tackle was taking tape off his hands following a hard-fought, yet unwelcome 17-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, with media all around him. That's normally a time when the team captain and star defensive tackle brings perspective to proceedings with a hint of optimism in honest answers.


Not so this time.

Not after the Falcons lost their fourth straight game with so much on the line.

Jarrett would start to answer a question, get on track and then drift towards one unmistakable fact that has haunted this recent losing streak and brought disappointment to someone who sees the glass half full.

"It's the same thing, just a different game," Jarrett said. "I'm frustrated. I'm not ashamed to say it."

Jarrett had every right to be mad as a cold, harsh reality set in. The Falcons had been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

"Yeah, man. It hit me," Jarrett said. "I don't know about everybody else around here, but it bothers me. Very much."

The Falcons had to win out and get some help along the way, or lose two and pray for a miracle. That's not how Saturday shook out. The Falcons lost and both Carolina and New Orleans won, making it impossible for the Falcons to come out atop the NFC South.

Even when the going got tough and wins were irregular, hope remained that a weak division created opportunity for the Falcons to get hot steal a championship.

It's something altogether different when improbable becomes impossible, a transition that happened on Christmas Eve in a claustrophobic visitor's locker room.

Something unwanted is now set in stone. The Falcons will play the two remaining games at home, against Arizona and Tampa Bay, and then clean lockers out.

Head coach Arthur Smith wants his Falcons to do two things before reaching the end of the road.

Make progress and win.

That's what needs to happen next. It's also what wasn't done enough to remain in contention.

The Falcons didn't make enough offensive progress in the passing game to balance the attack out and remain efficient scoring points. They didn't do well enough in the red zone and on critical downs to achieve that aim even with a run-heavy operation.

When you aren't doing well in big moments, you aren't winning very much.

The Falcons didn't do much winning when they absolutely had to, with but one victory since Week 9.

They played tons of close games and were competitive but, as Jarrett pointed out above, the script was the same. The Falcons would fall behind early with some defensive miscues, then tighten up on that side of the ball while the offense mounted a comeback attempt that most always fell just short.

That's a bit of an oversimplification, but that describes a common theme while stacking losses. They were 4-8 in one-score games, but Smith argues well that it shouldn't be compared to last year's 7-2 mark in similar situations. I agree with him. I've said a billion times that close results don't travel between seasons. There's too much random within these events to assume you'll have carryover.

Too often, this season, the Falcons couldn't get a lead and keep it. That's bad news when combined with the fact this run-first team wasn't good playing from far behind. And, in critical moments, the offense too often ended up just short.

"Ultimately, it's about winning," Smith said. "I think you can look at a lot of the progress being made, but we have to be able to play with a lead. A lot of these [one-score games] have been comebacks. We are a resilient group, but we need to win. … There has been a ton of progress. It's different than last year when we were in some one-score games. This is a different team, with different circumstances. We'll go back and look at all of them, but we have to find a way to get over that hump."

This Ravens loss featured many of the elements common in this season's losses. The defense would start slow and then show up on critical downs. The offense would struggle in critical moments, often on third down or in the red zone at times were success was vitial.

That was a problem against Baltimore, where the offense was 5-for-14 on third down, 1-for-4 on fourth down and 0-for-4 in the red zone.

"Situational football," Smith said. "That's where we came up short here today."

The Falcons came up short several times in those situations and in make-or-break moments.

One can recall so many off the top of the head, from the fourth-quarter interception against the Rams to the Marcus Mariota at home against New Orleans. There was the Drake London fumble on a comeback drive last week in a Saints rematch, the tipped pass in Washington that ended up a game-sealing interception. Oh, and don't forget the double fumble against the Chargers.

If even two of those games (among several others) go a different way, the Falcons are in still in contention, possibly with a real chance to win the division.

But they didn't because the Falcons weren't consistently quality in critical moments. They weren't deep enough to handle key injuries, especially to Kyle Pitts, Casey Hayward and Ta'Quon Graham, plus when they lost Cordarrelle Patterson and A.J. Terrell for different stretches. They still haven't found quarterback stability and that proved particularly costly at times this season.

Not enough went right to take advantage of an odd divisional circumstance, which could well end up with the NFC South victor finishing below .500.

It's right and fair to say progress has been made, that there's hope for the future and that the young foundation is expanding before our very eyes. But, if we're looking at this season as a singular entity, the Falcons weren't deep enough and didn't execute well enough in big moments to continue playing beyond their last scheduled game.

As Jarrett said, that's a difficult fact to absorb, especially after players and coaches worked so hard for so long to extend their season with a chance to achieve ultimate goals. There will be plenty of time to ponder what comes next, but reflection on what has happened shows the Falcons weren't good enough in 2022 to let good times roll.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Baltimore Ravens during Week 16.

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