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Tabeek: Falcons’ path to the playoffs just got much tougher

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CLEVELAND – There’s still a path to the postseason for the Falcons, but the road just got considerably tougher.

The Falcons’ three-game winning streak came to a screeching halt here on Sunday afternoon following a 28-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns and, in doing so, Atlanta fell to 4-5 on the year. Now, with four of the Falcons’ remaining seven games on the road, the margin for error is much smaller.

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During the previous two seasons under coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons have finished 6-2 down the final stretch. To have a fighting chance at a postseason berth this year, they’ll most likely need to repeat the feat.

Again, a 10-6 record might do that, but there are still no guarantees. A 9-7 mark likely won’t cut it.

Can they pull it off? Sure, but it would mean the Falcons can only afford to drop just one more game – and that’s with road contests still to play at New Orleans, at Green Bay, at Carolina and at Tampa Bay. That’s not going to be easy.

Remember, the Falcons have only won once on the road so far this season.

So, what went wrong against the Browns?

A week after their best defensive performance of the season – holding Adrian Peterson and the Redskins to 79 yards on the ground and to 5-of-13 (38 percent) on third downs – the Falcons defense took a step backwards. Then, Browns rookie Nick Chubb stepped all over them, rushing for 176 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown.

The back-breaker was Chubb’s 92-yard run in the third quarter – a Browns franchise record – which put Cleveland up 28-10. The Browns, who improved to 3-6-1, ran for 211 total yards on the ground and piled up 427 yards of total offense.

The Falcons also did the one thing Quinn said they couldn’t afford to do against Cleveland: Turn the ball over. They did so twice – both fumbles. And one – Mohamed Sanu’s fumble in the third quarter – led to seven points for the Browns.

Matt Ryan once again threw for more than 300 yards – 330 to be exact – but he also attempted 52 passes, a lot of them of the short to intermediate variety. The Browns, to their credit, didn’t give up the big play – something the Falcons have been accustomed to pulling off at will through the first eight games of the season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the Browns’ Baker Mayfield had himself a day against the Falcons. The rookie signal caller completed 17 of 20 for 216 yards and three touchdowns. The Falcons, who acquired free agent pass rusher Bruce Irvin on Wednesday, struggled to generate any pressure whatsoever on Mayfield and didn’t sack him once.

The Falcons must regroup and head home to face the Cowboys on Nov. 18. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones, who has spent the majority of the season on the injured reserve list following foot surgery, returned to practice last week and is expected to play. That’s at least some good news for the Falcons, especially as they gear up to face Ezekiel Elliott and Co.

With the Rams, Saints, Redskins and Bears pulling away in their respective divisions, the Falcons will be competing with Vikings, Packers, Seahawks, Eagles and possibly those Cowboys for one of two wild-card spots. Only the Packers and Cowboys have worse records right now, too.

No one thought the second half the Falcons season would be a cake walk, but it’s safe to say that not many expected this team to lose in Cleveland on Sunday, either.

“I told the team I thought we took a step back today," Quinn said after the game. "That’s tough to see and tough to say. I also told them we must regroup. We’re trying to fight our ass off for consistency, and we certainly made improvement over the last three weeks, and we didn’t get the job done today. We certainly lost some of that consistency that we’ve been building towards. For us, it’s 100 percent time to get back to it, watch it tomorrow, regroup, and then right back to the NFC starting this weekend back at home.”

For now, they still control their own destiny. And that’s the one positive they can hang their hats on as the head home to face the Cowboys.

Have a question or comment about Matthew Tabeek’s column or anything Falcons-related? Submit your question here and receive an answer Straight from the ’Beek.

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