Kyle Pitts and the Falcons were rolling. Pitts caught a pass and evaded Bills defenders for 61 yards downfield, which put him over a thousand yards on the season in the second quarter of Sunday's pivotal matchup. He surpassed Julio Jones' rookie franchise receiving yard record with the reception and became the second rookie tight end in NFL history with over one thousand yards.
On the next drive, while running a route across the middle of the field, Pitts pulled up and began to limp and jump towards the sideline while holding his right hamstring. Pitts stayed out for the remainder of the second quarter, and the Falcons converted on a field goal to go into halftime leading 15-14.
Pitts tried to return on the Falcons' first drive of the third quarter, but he limped off the field and did not return. With Pitts out and Hayden Hurst missing the game due to being placed on the reserve/Covid-19list, the Falcons were down two of their most dynamic weapons, and their absence was felt throughout the Falcons scoreless second half.
"It's hard to replace his skill set," Matt Ryan said. "and he played extremely well for us when he was out there."
Still, players stepped up for the Falcons in the second half, like Parker Hesse. And the Falcons had opportunities to stay in this game, but ultimately, they could not capitalize.
"It's always tough, trust me, when you don't have the full complement of guys. It's difficult, but you gotta find a way to do it," Ryan said. "And we had chances we really did, and it's disappointing that we didn't take advantage of it."
One of the changes that came with Pitts and Hurst out was the offensive play calling. The Falcons rely heavily on two-tight end sets featuring Hurst and Pitts, so the change forced the Falcons' offense to adjust with both players missing.
"Definitely changes some of the plays we have and the personnel groupings," Ryan said post-game. "For the most part, we are in a position where we needed to throw it; we needed to go fast. And while we've done that at times in those personnel groupings, we're more than capable of doing it from some three-wide receiver sets with one running back."
And while the scoreless second-half scoreboard does not reflect it, the Falcons did move the ball after Pitts' exit.
Hesse, elevated from the practice squad earlier in the week, made plays for the Falcons in the second half. Hesse finished with three receptions for 31 yards – with two of his catches coming in the second half – and made an impact blocking down the stretch. Not to mention, Russell Gage made big catches in the second half and finished the game with three receptions for 50 yards.
"[Hesse] played really well; he gave us everything he had down the stretch, and I'm proud of him for that effort," Ryan said. "And I thought our wide receivers competed and played really tough.
"… It's always difficult when somebody goes down, but you gotta rely on the other guys to step up. And I'm proud of those guys. I thought their effort and intensity and the way that they played, you know, was something as a teammate I really appreciate."
And even with missing weapons, the Falcons had chances in the second half, their best coming in the fourth quarter.
Ryan scrambled four seven yards for a touchdown to bring the Falcons within a score. But officials took the touchdown away after Ryan's knee was deemed down before crossing the endzone and flagged his post-touchdown celebration for taunting.
The penalty pushed the Falcons back, making it third and 16, and they could not convert. The Bills ran off the remaining five minutes and 42 seconds on their next drive, eliminating the Falcons from the playoffs.
"We just needed to be more opportunistic," Ryan said. "...We had a chance there at the end, and it's just disappointing that it didn't shake out how we wanted it to."
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.