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Bair: Fourth-quarter execution beat Browns, could decide path of Falcons season

Falcons came through in the clutch for a second straight week, closing out a 23-20 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The Falcons haven't played a game decided by more than four points. And that's in four tries.

Every contest has been close.

Every result has come down to a dramatic end. Bitter or happy?

Atlanta has had two of each.

They evened the season score with Sunday's 23-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns, marking the second straight time these Falcons have come through in the clutch.


It was a Grady Jarrett sack, followed by a Richie Grant pick to seal it in Seattle. Another Jarrett sack set up another obvious passing situation against Cleveland, and rookie Dee Alford picked it to ice victory and continue a positive trend.

That comes after letting a two-score, fourth quarter lead slip against the Saints and a massive fourth-quarter comeback against the L.A. Rams fell just short.

Now we're back to even, thanks to solid defense and a surging, big-play run game that exerted itself against the Browns. Even went things weren't going well, the Falcons pressed on and found a way to win.

"This says a lot about our team," Arthur Smith said, "and the guys we've got."

The Falcons head coach said something else in the same breath worth noting: "Most of these games come down to the end."

That's often true, especially for teams both competitive and flawed. You won't find many blowouts among those teams or the somewhat evenly matched, but talent disparity (or vital injuries) will create them.

Want proof? Let's recall the Falcons from a year ago. They were 7-2 in one-score games. Their other eight were contest all losses, by an average of 21 points.

There may be some lopsided results on the schedule in one way or the other, but that doesn't change this important fact, one reiterated time and again in this season's early stretch.

These Falcons are better and more competitive than they were a year ago. They're more efficient on offense, especially running the ball. They're more ferocious on defense and capable, as we've seen in recent weeks, of making game-changing plays when it matters most.

Given those improvements, we should expect to see more competitive games, more tight finishes throughout this fall. And when a game's on the line, how will these Falcons perform? Can they maintain composure, even when things don't go perfectly right?

Will they, somehow or some way, emerge with a win? Given our early-season evidence, they'll have to far more often than not.

Positive outcomes only increase confidence heading into, and while experiencing those clutch situations.

"We knew it was going to be a four-quarter fight," tight end Kyle Pitts said. "We had that mindset all week, which it is every week. Just go out there and keep fighting until the end."

That'll be a plus moving forward, especially if the Falcons are in position to get wins during a difficult upcoming stretch at Tampa Bay, versus San Francisco and at Cincinnati. While the Falcons are overmatched on paper against some of those teams, I don't think anyone should count them out of any game right now.

Running the ball well and play opportunistic defense will keep you competitive, and that's what the Falcons are good at.

That has helped secure two straight victories and generate excitement about the Falcons direction both in this season and over a longer-term. There will be a time or two, where the quarterback has to go down and win it. Marcus Mariota played a massive role in that Seattle win. The run game took the wheel in this one. But this is a quarterback league and sometimes the trigger man will have to go win one by taking yards in chunks without much time on the clock. That would be a new way for the Falcons to secure a victory -- one they'll surely need before the season's out -- but there's confidence now that they can excel no matter what the situation.

If that proves true, this team is going to win more than many thought. They're tough. They're competitive. Nobody's perfect but, if they can regularly come through big down the stretch, the Falcons are going to have a lot of big finishes.

"We're a team, and we'll find different ways [to win]," Smith said. "We believe in these guys. We'll keep improving, but these guys believe. That's the way they work."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns during Week 4.


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