IN THE AIR, ROUGHLY 22,000 FEET UP — When a game goes the way Sunday's loss did for the Falcons, I tend to assume the last thing you want to do is rehash it. But sometimes that's exactly what needs to happen to properly move on. At least, that's what I am telling myself as I write, anyways.
In the Falcons 31-13 loss to the 49ers on Sunday, there was a lot that just didn't go right for Atlanta. After the game, Duron Harmon described feeling "sour" about the way the game transpired. I thought that was a solid word choice. And as I looked back at the notes I took throughout the game I realized that I, too, described moments of the game with the usage of a single word.
Of the three I've chosen to break down the day after the loss, I am sure they are words you would use to describe this game, too.
I will preface this section by saying this is only my second season covering the Falcons. As a resident of Georgia - and for the last five years, Atlanta - I have taken in my fair share of Falcons games, but I wouldn't say I have seen every single game of Matt Ryan's career. I have seen a lot, but not every single one. But enough to know what type of leader Ryan is. He's always seemed to be the epitome of the old cliche of can't-get-too-high-or-too-low.
Looking back on Sunday, I feel as though it's been a long time since I've seen Ryan as visibly frustrated as he was early in the game.
At one point, Ryan's frustration almost seemed to represent how an entire fanbase was feeling about what was happening with the offense.
The unit failed to punch the ball in from the one yard line after special teams recovered the fumble on the opening kickoff. There were - of course - palpable frustrations because of the 49ers goal line stand. But they didn't boil over until the Falcons next drive.
Atlanta had pretty solid field position. It wasn't the 12 yard line, but it was still just inside San Francisco territory. Ryan scrambled for a seven yard pick up on first down, and he handed it off to Cordarrelle Patterson on the next play for a gain of two. The Falcons were then looking at a third and short situation, but Jalen Mayfield jumped. The Falcons were pushed back five yards. Then, something happened operationally. I couldn't tell what exactly happened if I am being honest. It could have been a number of things. Perhaps the call came in late or the offense couldn't get set. Whatever it was, Ryan was forced to call the Falcons second timeout within the first two drives.
Again, it was as visibly frustrated as I've seen Ryan in a while. He said after the game it was the heat of the moment, a typical football response from a leader trying to get his team working cohesively and intellectually. Looking back, it was a frustration that lingered as the Falcons offense struggled to get into the end zone all day.
If Harmon said the game in and of itself left the Falcons feeling "sour," then there was one - and only one - sweet feeling. And that was Russell Gage, who was the Hershey's bar in the midst of a bucket of sour gummy worms.
Gage finished the day with 91 receiving yards on eight receptions. He made a few plays for the Falcons that deserve their own highlight reel. There was an impressive touchdown catch in the second quarter, and a 21-yard acrobatic catch that literally had me writing "woah" in the margins after half time.
Gage has emerged in the last month of the season. Thinking back, it's interesting to see his rise in production as the season has gone on. He started the season with a high ankle sprain that was a peskier injury than he said he was expecting. Missing a few games, Gage returned, but the production really didn't. He wasn't targeted much, sometimes not at all.
But Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone and Ryan, too, were all confident that Gage's targets would come. They have, and with them the added bonus for a player in a contract year.
It was rather sweet to see Gage's emergence in both style and production increase as the weeks have gone on. It doesn't make the loss any less sour, but from an individual standpoint, Gage is arguably playing his best football as we speak.
I wrote this at the end of the third quarter. It was probably a little early to give this loss this moniker, but once San Francisco scored in the final minutes of the third quarter to stretch their lead to 31-13, it felt fitting.
I said this in our Falcons Final Whistle podcast after the loss that this as much - if not more - than any other loss this season felt deflating and disappointing. I said I felt this way because we had finally seen progress and steps being taken in the right direction.
The Falcons were running the ball better. They were much better on third down. Defensively, they were holding their own and making plays and winning the turnover battle. We were actively seeing all of that happening.
There was growth seen over the last three to four weeks of the season. I went into the game against the 49ers feeling as though - even if the Falcons lost - that the evidence of growth would still be there. But on Sunday, I felt as if the Falcons took a step back.
I think that was what was so disappointing about the loss: I feel like I know - and have seen - this team play better. They didn't on Sunday, and they have the loss and the likely insurmountable playoff odds because of it.
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