HOUSTON — The Falcons’ march to the NFL playoffs suffered a setback on Sunday.
Enlarge photo Dave Einsel, AP Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is grabbed by Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith (94) in the second quarter.
T.J. Yates, who played his high school football at Pope High in Marietta, led the Texans to a 17-10 victory over the Falcons before 71,545 fans at Reliant Stadium.
Yates, who made his first NFL start, received ample help from a stout defense and running back Arian Foster. The Falcons chipped in with some overthrown passes, dropped footballs and untimely penalties that helped erase two touchdowns.
“That was not the kind of performance that we want to have, especially at this point in the season,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Yates, a 24-year old rookie, out-played Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was under duress from Houston’s blitzing 3-4 defense. Yates completed 12 of 25 passes for 188 yards and one touchdown. He had a passer rating of 86.8.
Ryan, who overthrew three long passes and was intercepted twice, has had much better days. He completed 20 of 47 passes for 267 yards and one touchdown. He had a passer rating of 50.6 points.
The Texans improved to 9-3. The Falcons dropped to 7-5, and could find themselves two games behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South if the Saints handled the Detroit Lions in the late Sunday night game.
With four games to play, the Falcons will need the Saints to partially collapse in order to defend their NFC South title. Realistically, the Falcons are in a battle for one of the two wildcard slots with Dallas, the New York Giants, Chicago, Detroit and Seattle.
The loss was difficult for the Falcons to accept.
“We feel like this was a game that we should have dominated,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “I can honestly say that the only team that beat us this year was the Chicago Bears. The rest of the games, we shot ourselves in the foot, on both sides of the ball.
“If we want to be a dominant football team, we can’t beat ourselves. We are too good of a team to make some of these mistakes.”
With the score tied 10-10, Robinson was one of the culprits.
Linebacker Mike Peterson had intercepted Yates and had an apparent 32-yard touchdown. But, on the other side of the field, Robinson was in a fierce battle for inside position with Houston wide receiver Kevin Walter. Robinson was called for a holding penalty to erase the touchdown.
With a new set of downs, the Texans put together a 19-play drive. Foster capped it with a 1-yard touchdown to put the Texans ahead with just over six minutes to play.
Instead of taking a 17-10 lead on Peterson’s “touchdown” the Falcons were down.
Earlier in the game, on third and 8 from the Falcons 15, Yates was hit by defensive tackle Vance Walker. Safety James Sanders picked up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown. Even though no whistle was blown, players from both teams thought it was an incomplete pass and wandered onto the field, anticipating a Texans’ field goal attempt.
“The ruling on the field was the ball was dislodged from his hand before his hand went forward, so the fumble was ruled,” referee Bill Levy said. None of the players who wandered onto the field interfered with the play. “It was what we call a double foul after a change. What we decided to do is offset those penalties at the spot where the Atlanta player came on the field.”
Defensive end Ray Edwards was announced at the Falcons player who came onto the field, but Levy later announced there were multiple players from each side on the field.
The play was called back and instead of a touchdown, the Falcons were given the ball on their 35. Ryan was intercepted three plays later.
The Falcons started off misfiring.
Ryan missed on deep passes to Roddy White and Julio Jones on their first and third plays from scrimmage. He also was intercepted later on a flea flicker when the Falcons tried to catch the Texans’ safeties creeping up to help in the run game.
Ryan was not pleased with his game. The Texans basically dared him to beat them with some deep passes and he didn’t pull it off.
Smith said the offense played in spurts.
“We had opportunities, specifically early,” Ryan said. “We had some shots designed that were really good. I just missed on them.”
The Texans came up to stop running back Michael Turner and then tried to blitz Ryan into throwing quickly. Turner was held to 44 yards on 14 carries.
White, who had two back-to-back 100-yard games, caught four passes for 51 yards and a touchdowns.
“Our rationale coming into the game was let’s try and hit some of those balls down the field,” Ryan said. “We designed them to get one-on-one matchups with our guys and kind of pushed those safeties off. We just didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t make the plays when we needed to.”
Instead of keeping pace with the Saints and moving to the head of the playoff class, the Falcons find themselves back in the middle of the NFC pack.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog