Surely, there are a few positives for the Falcons after their first defeat of the season.
For starters, they finally are freed from having to talk about being undefeated, the possibility of finishing undefeated and the increasing public scrutiny that goes along with all of that.
“No,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said the day after Atlanta’s 31-27 defeat at New Orleans on Sunday. “I’d rather much be answering those questions and be 9-0 than answer these questions and be 8-1.”
OK, but it’s not as if New Orleans dominated Atlanta. The Falcons led 10-0 early, regained the lead after falling behind and then lost when they failed to score a touchdown on three chances from the 1-yard line.
The surging Saints and their fans were motivated against their hated rivals. The Falcons had no real running game and Saints quarterback Drew Brees had his usual assortment of big passing plays.
And yet Atlanta came up literally one yard short from winning. So that’s got to be something to build on.
“I don’t think there is any consolation in that,” Falcons center Todd McClure said. “The whole objective is to win football games and if you don’t, you go back and look at the areas where you fell short in and that’s what we will do today.”
The Falcons still have the best record in the NFC and a commanding lead in the NFC South. The only thing that’s certain now that wasn’t before Sunday is the Falcons won’t finish undefeated.
That never seemed realistic, anyway, though safety William Moore said, “We had something in mind” and “We want to be perfect” when told that losing in the NFL was almost inevitable.
“This loss right here is going to build the character of our team even more,” Moore said. “We’ve got some great guys in here. If you look at it this morning, everybody is ready to get back on it.”
The Falcons will see some familiar weaknesses during their self-examination.
The running game sputtered again New Orleans with 46 yards on 18 attempts and multiple failures in short-yardage situations. Stopping the run has been a season-long problem, too, as highlighted Sunday by the Saints’ Chris Ivory’s momentum-shifting 56-yard touchdown run.
Those shortcomings and others were evident while Atlanta won its first eight games. The Falcons knew it then and said so.
“I don’t think we needed a wake-up call (because) every Sunday there are areas you can improve on,” McClure said. “This team wasn’t asleep. We worked hard last week. We just didn’t execute like we should on Sunday. It’s tough to win a game on Sunday every week, much less nine in a row.”
The Falcons likely won’t win when it counts most if they can’t run the ball more consistently. More to the point, they have to find a way to get a yard or two in critical situations.
The Saints stopped running back Michael Turner on three runs when the Falcons needed a yard. The Falcons didn’t even try a running play on fourth down at the 1-yard line in the final minute after Turner was stopped on third down.
“We did not execute well,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We had too many unblocked guys in the hole.”
As Atlanta struggled to run for one yard, the Saints were able to change the game on Ivory’s one big run in the first quarter, after Atlanta posted a quick 10-point lead. Smith said the Falcons missed four tackles on the play.
Smith noted that Ivory’s 56-yard run skewed the numbers somewhat; New Orleans gained 92 yards on its other 28 attempts. Also, the Falcons were much stouter against the run after halftime.
Still, the Falcons rank third from the bottom of the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.9 yards).
“It’s been an issue that has probably been our Achilles heel on the defensive side of the ball,” Smith said.
All NFL championship contenders have weaknesses. In the final analysis, the Falcons lost a close game on the road because New Orleans played well enough to exploit their flaws.
Now it’s up to the Falcons to prove they can shore up those weak spots.
“We will definitely get that done,” Robinson said. “We are not worried at all. We are a very good football team. We’ve got a lot of football left and we are going to do a lot of winning.”
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