It was a definitive statement, if nothing else. Three months after their defense was waxed by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 divisional round of the playoffs, Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith agreed to trade five draft picks — including two first-rounders — to the Cleveland Browns for the right to move up and select Alabama receiver Julio Jones. The idea, ostensibly, was to put an offense on the field that could outscore any defensive concerns. The problem, then as it is now, is that the Falcons already had a talented battery of receivers. What they needed was depth in their defensive backfield, and they paid dearly for that misdiagnosis 51 weeks after the loss to the Packers.
With top cornerback Brent Grimes out of the game with a knee injury, the Falcons were one-and-done in the playoffs once again — this time as the result of a 24-2 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon. In the end, that supposedly explosive offense couldn't score a single point against Perry Fewell's opportunistic defense. The only time the Falcons put any points on the board was when Giants quarterback Eli Manning was called for an intentional grounding penalty in his own end zone, leading to a second-quarter safety that put the Falcons up, 2-0.
After that, it was all over. Manning passed for a total of 277 yards and three touchdowns, the Giants' formerly dormant running game got on the right track against Atlanta's generally stout run defense, and the only real impactful offensive plays seen by the Falcons were a series of short-yardage miscues that put the in-game acumen of Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey into question. The Falcons were just 4 of 14 on third down, and 0 for 3 on fourth-down attempts. Perhaps the most ridiculous of those tries was the Matt Ryan quarterback sneak in the third quarter.
A fake jet sweep with Jones coming around from the left edge and power runner Michael Turner on the sideline? Yeah, that was fairly questionable.
"It was less than a yard, it was about half a yard, maybe even less than that," Smith said after the game. "That was the play, again, we go through and sequence those things all through the week and felt like that was the play we had up and we just didn't execute it. We felt like at any point in time we ought to be able to move less than a half-yard with the quarterback sneak."
Did he think of calling for a field goal there? After all, short yardage wasn't working for the Falcons, and they were down by just eight points at the time. "Well, it was considered. The score at the time, you could have gone ahead and attempted the field goal. I felt, and we felt as a staff, and with our offense we could move the ball and we wanted to get seven points just like we did earlier in the ballgame. That was the first one, we were just about at the range with our kicker in terms of the attempt. The second one was definitely inside, but we had a go if we wanted to attempt the field goal."
Perhaps spooked by the offense's failures in that department, Smith opted to punt the ball away with fourth-and-2 at his own 27 to end the next drive. Down 17-2, it was a move by a coach who seemed to understand that it just wasn't going to be his day.
"My thought on that was we had a little bit more than a yard. It wasn't a yard or less. That was another crucial time in the ballgame, another crucial play. There were a handful of them that I think stood out in the ballgame -- I think one of the areas was the short yardage and not being able to convert on that third down, and we ended up being a yard to a half a yard short."
In the end, the Falcons were far more than half a yard short — once the Giants got heated up, they simply took the game over. Atlanta tried to take star receiver Victor Cruz out of the game, but without Grimes or the depth the team should have addressed in the 2011 draft, Manning simply had too many weapons.
"I think we are going to run our offense," Manning said of Atlanta's attempts to dictate his passing game. "We are not trying to force things to a certain guy. If they want to try to take away Victor, that's fine. That is why we have Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. These guys are playmakers. We feel good about whatever the coverage is, whatever your plan is, we are going to have an answer … I feel good back there saying, 'Hey, I'm just reading the coverage, I'm going through my progressions and whoever my read is telling me to throw the ball to, that's where I'm going to try to go.'"
It was Nicks who caught the backbreaker, a 72-yard touchdown on the possession after that failed fourth-and-1. Forgotten to a degree because of Cruz's recent ascent, the Giants' best overall receiver was very happy to contribute.
"It was a little play action off the run fake," Nicks said. "It was something we practice during the week and Eli knew he had to get it up over the linebackers with the play-action pass. Once he put it up, he put it in a place where only I could catch it and I went up and got it."
It was a great throw by Manning, but the point was also clear that the Falcons should have put up more of a fight.
"You want to have all your best players," Smith said of the loss of Grimes. "Unfortunately, Brent was not able to go. Today we made a decision based on how he was feeling this morning and he was not able to go. You want to have all your guys. But again, at this point in the season you are going to have guys who are injured and other guys are going to have to step up. We'd like to have all our starters out there, but unfortunately we were not able to and we lost [safety] William Moore early in the game as well."
One year after charging into the playoffs at 13-3, the Falcons had to back in behind the New Orleans Saints, who took back their NFC South title. Ryan has not progressed as some would prefer. As a pure runner, Turner seems to have lost some burst and velocity at the point of attack, and for all the receiver talent on the roster, Roddy White can't stop dropping passes. Asked if his team had regressed from a season ago, Smith tried to sound as if he wasn't thinking the same thing.
"We didn't play consistent football. I think, our roster, we've made some moves and we got some guys who are going to be very good football players for us for years to come. Unfortunately, the record wasn't as good and we ended up not playing beyond the first game of the playoffs. And that is a disappointment. It's a disappointment for every man in that room. Players, coaches and staff. We are going to do everything in our power starting tomorrow to get it better and get it fixed.
"You get what you earn in this league."
Sadly for the Falcons, that's all too true. They learned too late that they were more than one player away.
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