If this is not it, it’s scary to think what that would look like.
Playing a team that was winless less than a week earlier, Atlanta got steamrolled by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-28 and by a second-year running back who had less than a 100 career rushing yards to his name entering the game.
Oh, by the way, NFC South-leading New Orleans, a team that set an NFL record with 40 first downs last Sunday against Dallas, visits the Georgia Dome on Thursday.
In a season that began with hopes that the Falcons again would finish as one of the best — if not the best — teams in the NFC, they look like the worst team in their conference, a discombobulated bunch struggling to find offensive line combinations in Week 11.
At 2-8, their record indicates that they are tied for the fewest wins in the NFC with Tampa Bay and Minnesota, but after Sunday one can only conclude that the Buccaneers presently are superior to Atlanta. As for the Vikings? Well, they have Adrian Peterson and that always seems to keep them competitive.
The Falcons? Not so much these days.
They were blown out for a fourth straight week, trailing by as much as 28 points until they made it close in garbage time. They have been outscored 135-61 over the last four weeks.
The Falcons remain winless on the road (0-5) and have not won since defeating these same Buccaneers coming out of the bye week Oct. 20. Whereas earlier this season the Buccaneers looked as if they were a team in disarray, having cut their starting quarterback Josh Freeman, they have now won two straight and at least appear on an upward arc whereas the Falcons continue to plumb new depths.
Looking beyond the conference, one would have to wonder if the Falcons might be the worst team in the NFL right now. Even lowly Jacksonville has won more recently and is competitive on a weekly basis.
It’s been a month since the Falcons could claim they were competitive, as the coaching staff continues to grasp for answers. They tried to spark a running game that, for a third straight week, entered Sunday ranked last in the NFL. They started reserve Joe Hawley at center, moving second-year player Peter Konz — a second-round draft pick — to right guard and benching Garrett Reynolds. However, they soon scrapped that plan, benching Konz in favor of Reynolds.
Over the last three seasons, Reynolds and Konz and Hawley at various times have rotated in and out at the right guard position, the weakest link on a line ever since arguably its best lineman in recent seasons, Harvey Dahl, departed via free agency to St. Louis.
On Sunday, the Falcons finished with 152 yards rushing but most of those came on two late Antone Smith carries for 88 yards and quarterback Matt Ryan continued to take a beating, as Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had three sacks in the first half alone. The Bucs registered eight quarterback hits and three sacks.
One of the many hits on Ryan resulted in an interception returned for a touchdown — the ball was hit as Ryan released it, altering its path. Other lowlights included a blocked punt, the Buccaneers’ recovery of a surprise onside kick in the first half, a lost fumble by Roddy White, long pass plays allowed to Tampa Bay wide receiver Vincent Jackson and an inability to convert on both third- and fourth-and-1 in the second half. Both of those were pass attempts to White, each of which seemed catchable.
Maybe the biggest indignity was the performance of Bobby Rainey, the 5-foot-8, 212-pound running back out of Western Kentucky. On his third team in two seasons, Rainey had 21 carries for 79 yards in his career entering the game.
On Sunday he ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries and caught two passes for four yards and another touchdown.
By the end of this one, the Falcons had pulled numerous veterans in favor of younger players. Out were Ryan (later to return after back-up Dominique Davis suffered an injury), right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, left cornerback Asante Samuel and free safety Thomas DeCoud. In were Davis and rookies Robert Alford at left corner, Ryan Schraeder at right tackle and Zeke Motta at safety.
That is what this season has come to — a season that began with Super Bowl expectations. In the preseason, White was asked on national television if the season were a situation of Super Bowl or bust for the Falcons. He agreed that it was.