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Bair: 'Thankful it only counts as one': Falcons still in it after letting Bengals game slip away

Fixes must be made if Falcons are to go on a midseason run, seriously challenge for NFC South

CINCINNATI – The Falcons got beat handily by the Bengals on Sunday. There's no arguing that.

Not after allowing Joe Burrow to throw for 481 yards and three touchdown in a 35-17 loss at Paycor Stadium. Not after the offense failed to sustain the drives required to get back into this game after falling down three scores early, cutting the halftime lead to 11 and then letting it expand again to insurmountable levels.

There are no excuses for that performance. There were none given by Arthur Smith nor Falcons players following the season's first lopsided loss.

The Falcons head coach summed this one up succinctly.

"We didn't do a good enough job, none of us did, against a good team on the road."

True story.

There are no silver linings from this individual result. The Falcons got outplayed and outcoached. Didn't deserve this one.

Now let's put it in some greater context. They aren't out of anything at this stage. In fact, they're in the thick of everything.

For as bad as this outcome may have been, it didn't cost ground in the NFC South. Tampa Bay lost to Carolina in Week 7 – the Saints also fell to Arizona on Thursday – leaving little separation within a division where the Falcons are a tiebreaker from sitting on top.

Their ultimate goal of winning the division, or by making the playoffs in general, is right there for the taking.

"We're thankful it only counts as one," Smith said. "It's a long season and we've got to get back to work, make corrections and get ready to go for a divisional game at home."

They'll play Carolina twice in the next three weeks, including once on a Thursday night. While they have losses against the Super Bowl champs, the AFC champs and the reigning division champ thus far -- a loss to New Orleans is also mixed in -- upcoming opponents aren't as accomplished.

The Falcons only face two teams the rest of the way that currently have a winning record. That doesn't mean the schedule, or any win for that matter, will be easy. I only say to offer perspective and state that there's a clear path toward their goals.

The Falcons can reach them if they continue to make improvements and, as inside linebacker Rashaan Evans points out, find smoother seas.

"This is a situation where you're really close and winning, and then you get beat really bad. It's up and down like a roller coaster," Evans said. "We want to be in a situation where we're more consistent and we stay steady, where we're constantly winning and we get on a roll. That's what we're trying to find. We're trying to find that rhythm."

That won't just happen because someone said so. The Falcons have to fix problems and hope for good health. Passing offense and pass defense are the biggest concerns right now, and that's not just recency bias. While those became glaring issues in Cincinnati, they have been trouble spots throughout the season. Takeaways have mitigated the defensive effort some, but we saw Sunday that the defense can get into some trouble when turnovers run dry.

While the Falcons didn't like the outcome but may find solace in their lot in the NFC South and the season as a whole, left tackle Jake Matthews cautioned against simply brushing a negative experience in Cincinnati aside.

"The only thing we can't do is not learn from this," the veteran left tackle said. "We have to correct everything and not let those mistakes happen again."

Matthews is right. The Falcons have to get better, find ways to move the ball better through the air and play consistently tough on third down and in the red zone. They'll also have to overcome injuries, especially during this recent run on defensive playmakers.

That's what has to get done on the micro level. That will allow the Falcons to capitalize on a real opportunity to make noise in the division.

"We need to keep that high energy," Evans said. "We're in a situation where, if you get a win next week, you could feel good about what things look like. Then you can find a rhythm and win two or three more games and then you can start to position yourself for the playoffs. I'm not a negative guy. I look at the opportunities left ahead, and there are enough to do something really good here."

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