HOUSTON – The NFL season has crossed into December. This is when things get kind of serious. This is when Super Bowl contenders generally emerge from the pack and the thumb-twiddlers of the league fade into postseason oblivion.
The problem Sunday wasn’t merely that the Falcons lost a game, it’s that, given the backdrop, they looked far closer to thumb-twiddlers than contenders.
The bar is supposed to be raised.
The bar just fell on their head.
They lost 17-10 to the remains of the Houston Texans. They lost to a team with a rookie first-time starter at quarterback (T.J. Yates). They lost to a team with its three best players on the sideline with injuries: quarterback Matt Schaub (broken foot), wide receiver Andre Johnson (who left with a hamstring pull in the second half) and linebacker Mario Williams (lost for the season in October with a torn pectoral).
Houston’s leftovers do not comprise an awful team. They just don’t comprise a team that should’ve beaten the Falcons.
“This is one you’ve got to take care of,” linebacker Mike Peterson said.
Yet, this is how the Falcons responded: Wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones dropped a blur of passes. Quarterback Matt Ryan was dreadful — overthrowing receivers and twice intercepted. Ryan also had a delay-of-game penalty on a crucial fourth-and-1 late in the game. He was outplayed by Yates. It was difficult to tell who was making his 58th start and who was in his first.
The defense knew the Texans would run the ball. It couldn’t stop them, either because players were in the wrong spots, or missed tackles, or got flattened.
Did I mention it was December?
From linebacker Curtis Lofton: “You can’t come out when they’ve got a rookie quarterback and let them run the ball on us. That’s what happened.”
You expected a win.
You witnessed an implosion.
This was one of the worst regular season losses of the franchise’s current administration, given the circumstances. Strangely, Mike Smith didn’t react that way.
Yes, he referenced mistakes. But he punctuated his opening remarks with: “I like the way our guys fought to the end. They showed a lot of resolve. We fought back from that 10-0 start.”
The only thing missing was, “Let’s all go out for pizza.”
I’m sorry. I know Smith is a players’ coach. He is not going to throw anybody under the bus. But hasn’t this franchise advanced way past pats on the back?
This was a bad loss. A little anger seemed in order. What happened to the edge?
It got worse.
Smith referred to the Texans as “a measuring stick for our team in December.”
A measuring stick. Really? T.J. Yates, no Johnson, no Williams?
“The team that won the Super Bowl had 18 guys on injured reserve,” Smith responded. “This is a league of teams that have a lot of depth.”
So now Smith was comparing Houston, which never has made the playoffs, to the Green Bay Packers.
When asked again if he really believed the Falcons did not have an advantage going into the game, Smith said, “I think we had an advantage on paper before the game, but you have to go out and play the game. We’re disappointed. But we know those guys on the other side of the field are talented.”
There were excuses. A potential 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown by James Sanders in the first quarter was nullified when players from both teams left the sideline, believing it was an incomplete pass and play was dead. (The Falcon penalized: Ray Edwards. So he made an impact.) In the fourth quarter, with the game tied 10-10, a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown by Peterson was voided by a holding penalty by Dunta Robinson. (Again, a high-profile acquisition making the wrong impact.)
But the game never should have come down to either of those two plays.
“Obviously it’s a concern,” center Todd McClure said. “You want to have that win. But I have confidence in this team everything is still in our own hands.”
Should the Falcons still make the playoffs? Yes. But at 7-5 and with only four games left, there’s no comfort zone. There’s also no clear direction. When it’s December, that’s a problem.
By Jeff Schultz