Four Downs: Falcons drop stunner, lose to Browns on last-second FG
ATLANTA --In the span of 44 seconds, the feeling inside the Georgia Dome went from jubilation to agony. Matt Bryant's 53-yard apparent game-winning field goal was matched by Billy Cundiff, who nailed a 37-yard shot of his own to put the Cleveland Browns on top of the Atlanta Falcons, 26-24, with no time left on the clock.
Here are four observations from Atlanta's heartbreaking loss to Cleveland:
With 55 seconds on the clock in the fourth quarter -- and down by one point -- the Falcons were driving in Browns territory. The clock was running after Matt Ryan completed a 7-yard pass to Harry Douglas, and the Falcons had third-and-2 from the Cleveland 42-yard line.
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith called a time out.
"We wanted to get our best play for third-and-2 to try to earn the first down," said Smith. "We were right on the edge of where we wanted to be in terms of a field goal. But we wanted a first down."
The problem with the time out -- and Cleveland made the Falcons pay the price later -- is that by stopping the clock, the Falcons left precious seconds on the clock for the Browns. There were more issues than just stopping the clock, however.
In a third-down situation late in the game, it's inconceivable to think that the Falcons didn't already know what their best play was for that down and distance. Was the coaching staff second guessing itself? Is that why the time out was called?
Furthermore, the play that was actually called -- a long pass toward Devin Hester -- failed miserably. It was wrong for more reasons than just the failed first down.
Had the Falcons ran the football, the clock would have kept moving. We have the benefit of hindsight to know that Matt Bryant hit the 53-yard field goal. Smith could have milked the clock -- or forced Cleveland to use a time out -- before Bryant's attempt.
"A 53-yarder was definitely outside the range we had set prior to the game," said Smith. "We wanted to get the first down. We felt like we had a play and that's why we called the timeout. They (Cleveland) would have used the timeout if we hadn't."
Because the Falcons felt they needed a first down, that's apparently why the pass play was called. Bryant's made attempt made that point moot (just one of Smith's erroneous judgment calls). Smith's call will also forever be an error in time management because it shouldn't have taken a time out, even in a pressure situation, to find the right pass play.
When Smith, in defense of his call, said that had he not called the time out Cleveland would have, he made another point against himself. In that situation, the Falcons would have benefitted from the Browns calling the time out instead of the Falcons.
The last minute of Sunday's game -- except for the made field goal by Bryant -- was an atrocious 60 seconds of football for Atlanta. And Smith's press conference didn't make it any better.
Ryan's 27-for-43 (62.8 percent) performance doesn't tell enough of the story of how off he was on Sunday. Neither did his sole interception -- he should have been picked off at least two other times.
"I didn't get into a good rhythm today," said Ryan. "I think we had chances to make some plays. I think we did a good job on third downs; we were efficient there and made some good plays. We were good in the red zone but at different points of the game, we had some shots down the field.
"I didn't throw well enough. When you're playing against a good football team, which Cleveland is, you've got to hit them. We didn't do that today."
Ryan said the ball didn't go where he wanted it to go on "a couple" of passes to Julio Jones. Ryan missed Jones four times on deep routes. Ryan also had multiple passes batted down by defensive backs because he seemed to be locking on his target a bit too much.
The Falcons needed their running game to move the offense against a Browns defense that ranked 11th against the pass coming into the game. When the run didn't develop, Ryan looked to be forcing balls into tight places he shouldn't have been throwing toward.
Heading into Week 12, the Browns had allowed opposing teams to average 142.1 yards per game on the ground. Only two teams in the NFL were worse. This seemed like a great opportunity for Steven Jackson and company to do some damage.
Jackson averaged 2.6 yards per carry on 13 carries. Devonta Freeman ran the ball five times for seven yards. Jacquizz Rodgers was the lone bright point in the run game for Atlanta, but he only got three carries and gained 16 yards.
Atlanta rushed for 63 yards (six of those were from Ryan scrambles) against the 30th-ranked run defense in the league. That's the fewest yards this season any team has posted against Cleveland. And only three teams have been held to under 100 yards (Bengals for 86, Raiders for 76 and Atlanta's 63).
"We really didn't get into a good rhythm offensively," said Ryan. "It was kind of choppy the entire game. Especially in the run game. Rhythm is huge for that to get going. For whatever reason we just couldn't get it going. We'll have to take a look at the film."
The offensive line should take some of the blame. Jackson -- and Freeman for that matter too -- rarely had clear looks at the second level of the defense, and often was hit behind the line of scrimmage. But Jackson looked like he was in slow motion too.
Left guard Justin Blalock gave credit to the Browns defense.
"It is certainly one of the more exotic packages that we've come across," said Blalock. "We needed a lot of equipment, so to speak, to handle their packages. We had our hands full with trying to identify everything and get our guys in the right places."
The Browns took over in the fourth quarter down by one point with 44 seconds on the clock. Brian Hoyer led Cleveland down the field with little resistance from the Falcons' defense.
Hoyer led his team 61 yards down the field in 39 seconds and gave way for Cundiff to seal the fate of the Falcons.
It wasn't the brightest of moments for the Falcons' defense.
But don't forget the first 59 minutes of this game. No one will argue that Atlanta looked sharp on defense, but the Falcons did enough to keep points off the board for Cleveland. Atlanta's defense did enough to win the football game.
Twice in first half, Cleveland started in Atlanta territory (once on the 29) and only came away with the field goal. That was proper defense from the Falcons. Three times in the second half, the Browns drove into the red zone and came away with just two field goals (one -- unfortunately for the Falcons -- was Cundiff's game winner).
Desmond Trufant's interception in the back of the end zone at the 4:59 mark of the fourth quarter was an athletic play bettered by few we've seen this season. It also came at the perfect time for the Falcons. Kemal Ishmael's second-quarter pick was also well-timed.
It's fine to beat up on the Atlanta defense for Cleveland's game-winning drive. But don't hang the goat tag on it. If not for the defense, the Falcons would have been boat-raced.