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Bair: Fighting Falcons must do more early to avoid bitter ends

Falcons plays say team must start faster 'to keep us from having to fight for our lives at the end.'

TAMPA, Fla. – The Falcons were involved in yet another one-score game with a dramatic finish. That's five such instances in as many weeks.

Results, however, have been mixed.

They've won a pair of these heart attacks. They've lost a bit more than that, with their third gut wrencher coming in a 21-15 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

This one played out like a Week 2 loss to the L.A. Rams, when the Falcons fell way behind and then came roaring back with a fourth-quarter surge that ultimately fell just short.

Controversy made this one unique – Tori McElhaney has you covered, right here, on the roughing-the-passer call on Grady Jarrett – and surely harder to take, with a shocking flag robbing the Falcons of an opportunity to complete the comeback.

A comeback wasn't fathomable mere minutes earlier, when the Falcons were down 21 points and on the way to a truly lopsided-in-all-phases loss.

Then the Falcons did what they're known to do. They scratched and clawed and pushed and never, ever stopped throwing haymakers. That wasn't a revelation from this outcome. That's an expectation, a core characteristic of this group.

"It took us a minute to get rolling but, what happened once we did is something I never doubt," Falcons edge rusher Lorenzo Carter said. "We're going to fight until the end, fight through the last play."

Fair warning: This is not a column about the Falcons never giving up. There are no silver linings in a result like this.

This is about something left tackle/team captain Jake Matthews brought after this game, finding perspective through the frustration of another close loss.

"We have to find a way to play better in the beginning of the game," Matthews said. "That's the biggest takeaway I can [identify] right now."

Agreed. Whole-heartedly.

The Falcons can't keep putting themselves in these situations. They were down big to the Rams and Bucs, ending up with close losses.

Given what we've seen from the Falcons in the fourth quarter of every game since a Week 1 Saints loss, finishing isn't the problem. Starting and sustaining, however, has to improve.

Odds of winning down three scores is pretty low. They're far higher even in a back-and-forth affair, even if margins are razor thin.

"It's frustrating because, honestly, it would be a different game if we got rolling on offense a little earlier," Matthews said. "We really didn't get going until the fourth quarter; that's when we finally started moving it.

"We know that, if we can get on the same page, play with urgency, and know what to do and how to do it, we can be successful. It just took us too long to start doing that."

The Falcons couldn't score on offense until the fourth quarter. While the defense did a solid job against the Tampa Bay run game, Tom Brady's quick-passing attack kept the chains moving and built an ultimately insurmountable lead.

Something flipped late in the second half, when the defense shut the Bucs offense down, Avery Williams produced a big return and the offense scored on consecutive drives.

Should they have had a chance to finish the comeback after Jarrett's sack? Yeah. They should've. There's no arguing that.

Here's a counter: The Falcons shouldn't put themselves in that position. Fare better – not even great – and this game is closer and the Falcons might seal the deal without incident. Then we'd be talking about a crazy result and the Falcons overcoming great odds to beat a quality opponent without Kyle Pitts or Cordarrelle Patterson.

Those are all academic exercises now. The Falcons have an L they can't undo. They can learn from the result and improve. We know they're going to fight. We know they're going to be competitive, even when the tale of the tape suggests otherwise. If they can come a bit closer to a complete game, they can start winning more of these close ones than they lose.

"We definitely have to clean it up and make more plays early in the game," Carter said. "That might keep us from having to fight for our lives at the end."

The Falcons need to keep improving as the year progresses, avoid dire straits more often and giving themselves a better chance to pull things out at the end – or well before then – with things more even on the scorecards heading into the final rounds.

"We're never out of the fight," head coach Arthur Smith said. "I'm proud of these guys. There are certainly a lot of things we can improve, a lot of things I can do better. It's a long season and we have to keep building and working to play our best football in December and January."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Week 5.


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