TAMPA, Fla. – I'm not one for moral victories. I'm not into whether a losing team played well for a stretch. The game's four quarters for a reason, and standings don't give out partial credit.
The Falcons fell to Tampa Bay on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. That's both clear and present from the 45-28 final score.
They're 0-2 on the only ledger that matters. That's not a great place to live.
There must be, however, some nuance within this zero-sum game.
That's a contradiction; I get it. It's also essential when evaluating these Falcons, who are clearly a work in progress.
After putting this game in that proper context, the Falcons took an important first step against the defending Super Bowl champs.
They showed real fight, and not just in terms of effort. Trying hard isn't important on its own. Getting down, getting pissed and then combining drive and quality execution to do something about it -- that matters.
It isn't much, mind you, but it's a start. It was certainly better than a season opener that ended in a penalty-marred 32-6 loss to Philadelphia and without an offensive touchdown.
The Falcons found themselves in similar straits in the third quarter, down 18 points with their day nearly dead and buried. That's when something interesting happened. The Falcons could've laid down. They pushed back instead.
They scored 15 unanswered points, cutting Tampa Bay's lead to a field goal. They did so by converting on third down, even the tough ones. They tackled well and pressured the quarterback. And, maybe best of all, they converted on consecutive trips inside the red zone.
We know what happened next. A missed third-down opportunity, a shanked punt and two pick sixes later, this game got lopsided again. Not great. Not a way to finish games, and a clear sign the Falcons still have a long way to go.
No Falcon was happy with the result. But, unlike last week, there was a place to hang a hat.
"We're building something here, and these guys fight," head coach Arthur Smith said. "When you go on the road like this against a veteran team, our guys kept swinging. It's unfortunate what happened at the end.
"We have to keep improving, clearly."
That's evident. The mistake volume was still way too high. The Falcons struggled to run the ball efficiently, causing 2020 flashbacks, though Tampa Bay's interior defense had something to do with that. They don't have a consistent pass rush without the blitz. The pass coverage isn't steady enough across the defensive backfield. Even though the penalty count wasn't sky high, the Falcons still made too many mistakes to beat anyone of quality.
It's too much to say the Falcons found their identity on Sunday night as fighters who get knocked down and get up off the canvas time and again. We need a much larger sample size before making bold statements.
They'll have to improve execution while retaining that Rocky mentality. That's how they're going to win some games.
Doing so on a regular basis, against the type of stiff competition faced on Sunday, may take some time.
It's awesome to marvel at the Great Pyramids. It would've been no fun watching them get built.
There's no time lapse photography available here and, most of the time, progress comes through small and painstaking steps.
The Falcons know that. They also know they let an opportunity slip away. That was evident, quarterback Matt Ryan said, in the postgame locker room. There is, however, hope that better's on the horizon.
"The mood's never great after losses," Ryan said. "…We planned all week to come down to get the job done and, when you don't, that's a disappointment. At the same time, the message is that this is a long haul. We're two games into a 17-game schedule and we have a long way to go. I think [Smith] did a great job of getting that message across to the guys."
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Week 2 of 2021.