By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — You don’t ever know anything in sports, but we all knew that Matt Ryan and the Falcons were going to feast on the abysmal Patriots defense on Sunday night. The only question was whether or not Tom Brady’s offense could match them on the scoreboard.
We knew this. We knew this.
But then, sports happened. And in this instance, the Falcons proved beyond a reasonable doubt that as a franchise, for the time being, they are ruined. Absolutely ruined.
After impossibly blowing a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI, they have proven this season that there is no way that any team can overcome that level of failure on such a grand stage. And they now have three consecutive losses to show for it, the most recent being a nationally televised flop on Sunday Night Football in the home of the culprits of that historic Super Bowl moment.
Against one of the worst defenses in the entire NFL, the Falcons mustered just seven points. After being kept off the scoreboard for nearly 56 full minutes, they managed to score a touchdown. But it didn’t help much to erase the sting of the 23-7 loss to the Patriots.
Matt Ryan looked nothing at all like the reigning NFL MVP in Foxboro on Sunday. His final stats looked OK, thanks to his engineering of a garbage-time touchdown drive when his team trailed 23-0 in the fourth quarter. Prior to that drive, though, he was just 14-for-24 for 161 yards with no touchdowns.
On defense, Adrian Clayborn committed a senseless roughing the passer penalty to negate an Atlanta interception. The Atlanta defense was no match for the Patriots’ running game, which pounded it 36 times for 162 yards.
On special teams, Matt Bryant missed a simple 36-yard field goal early in the third quarter. That came after the field goal unit allowed Cassius Marsh to block a kick late in the first quarter.
Mentally, Julio Jones’ intimation that the stadium’s celebratory fireworks might have made it difficult for a trailing team to fight back didn’t really do much to dispel anyone’s belief that the Patriots are firmly inside the Falcons’ heads.
Perhaps worst of all, in what seemed like a desperate attempt to atone for the sins of Feb. 5, head coach Dan Quinn twice elected to go for it on fourth down near midfield in the first half.
Matt Ryan converted the first one with his legs, running for nine yards on a fourth-and-7. That drive, however, ended with the blocked field goal.
Late in the second quarter, facing a fourth-and-6 at the New England 47-yard line, Quinn inexplicably decided to go for it once more. Coming out of the two-minute warning, Ryan threw a deep corner route to Mohamed Sanu. The pass was nowhere close.
The Falcons gave a short field to Tom Brady and, lo and behold, Brady made them pay for it. He needed just seven plays to march the Patriots down the field and into the end zone, extending New England’s lead to 17-0 before halftime and essentially putting the game out of reach.
Instead of admitting an enhanced sense of urgency to score points against a team quarterbacked by Brady, or a belief that the Patriots’ defense was ripe for the picking, Quinn rehashed the same assertions of an overwhelming confidence that lives in his team.
“Really just the belief that I have in our guys,” Quinn said. “For me, historically I’ve been one to be aggressive in some of those moments, knowing the players that we have. So just I’d say it comes more to our belief in our team and I think what we can be.”
With the Falcons now at 3-3, there might not be too many people left who share Quinn’s vision for what the Falcons can be.
Late in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter, the Falcons put together their best drive of the night. They were poised to at least get on the scoreboard, even if they might not have really gotten back in the game. Yet on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Ryan’s pass to Jones was expertly broken up by Malcolm Butler. On fourth down, the Falcons attempted a jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel. The Patriots sniffed it out with ease, Kyle Van Noy tackled the ball carrier five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the Falcons turned it over on downs.
More than 14 minutes remained on the clock, but the game was over.
New England then casually marched the ball 74 yards up the field for a long, methodical scoring drive through the dense fog, leading to yet another field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. He successfully booted his third attempt of the night, and the Pats stretched their lead to 23-0. It was the third Patriots drive that lasted longer than five minutes, a proper indication of which team controlled the entire game.
On seven real drives (excluding the kneeldown deep in Atlanta territory to end the game), the Patriots scored five times.
The Falcons, by contrast, scored just once on their seven real drives.
The Patriots had entered the night allowing 26.5 points per game — 36 points per game at Gillette Stadium. They had allowed 466 yards per game on their home turf. The Falcons scored just seven points, and it came when the game had already long been decided. They gained just 343 yards of offense — 88 of which came during garbage time.
What a spectacular flop.
Sunday night’s loss on national television will, in all likelihood, send the Falcons’ season to a place nobody from the organization admitted would be possible. All summer long, the story from the Falcons was simple: we’re over it, it’s over, we’re past it, we’ve moved on, the time is now. Quinn expressed confidence; his guys followed suit. It was a unified response.
It was also a case of denial.
The Falcons started the year 3-0, thanks to the Bears dropping a would-be game-winning touchdown and Golden Tate coming up a hair short of the goal line in Detroit. There was a distinct sense that despite the record, they were teetering.
Then they lost. At home. To the Bills.
Then they lost again. Also at home. Coming out of their bye week. To the Dolphins. After leading 17-0.
And then they rolled into Foxboro, carrying the weight of a bad two-game losing streak and unable to look anywhere in Gillette Stadium without seeing a 28-3 banner or T-shirt — an unavoidable reminder of what will likely haunt them for as long as they play football for a living. They had the chance, technically, to put that 28-3 nonsense to bed, to play a solid football game, to beat the Patriots, to stabilize the season, and to do it on national television.
But after seeing how they played, we now know that such an outcome was never really in the cards.
The visiting team departed Gillette Stadium with the comfort of knowing they won’t have to see the Patriots again for a long time. But that absence is merely physical. There’s no escaping what the Patriots did to them back in February, an event exacerbated by what took place on Sunday night in Foxboro.
The Falcons are broken.