Turnovers, wasted chances cost Falcons in Miami
A season that began with a "Super Bowl or Bust" mantra for the Atlanta Falcons is ominously starting to look like the latter. In a game in which they absolutely dominated in the first half, the Falcons turned the ball over twice late and coughed one up, 27-23, on the road at Miami, to fall to 1-2. It doesn't get any easier for banged-up Atlanta, as 3-0 New England visits the Georgia Dome next Sunday night in a nationally televised game -- a game that is starting to take on the appearance of a dreaded must-win situation. Despite a defensive effort that totaled two takeaways (one fumble recovery, one interception) and a season-high five sacks, the Falcons allowed Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill to drive his unit 75 yards on 13 plays in 4:13 for the game-winning score with 43 seconds left. The Dolphins converted three third downs on the drive and finished it off with a one-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill to tight end Dion Sims. Injuries proved a major theme for the Falcons during the week. Starting running back Steven Jackson was ruled out for the game with a hamstring injury and likely will miss the match-up with New England on Sunday, as well. Other starters out on Sunday included defensive end Kroy Biermann (his season is over with a torn Achilles' tendon), fullback Bradie Ewing (his season also is over with a separated shoulder), top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (he'll miss eight weeks with a foot injury) and the highest-paid offensive lineman Sam Baker, who has knee and foot injuries. However, in the end, the Falcons cannot blame injuries for this loss. The offensive line in particular had come under extensive criticism entering the game, as it had allowed five sacks and 14 quarterback hits on Matt Ryan in the first two games and did not produce a 100-yard rushing game. Yet with Lamar Holmes making the first start of his career at left tackle (in only his third career start) in place of Baker and veteran Jeremy Trueblood starting at right tackle -- his first in an Atlanta uniform -- the Falcons not only prevented the Dolphins from registering a single sack but the line blocked well enough for the Falcons to total 146 rushing yards on 30 carries -- seemingly enough to win. Atlanta scored on all three first-half drives, running 36 plays to Miami's 16 and controlling the clock in time of possession, 22:48 to 7:12. The issue was that they could not capitalize on that enormous advantage to build anything larger than a 13-10 halftime lead. Much of that had to do with head coach Mike Smith's decision to have field goal kicker Matt Bryant make a 20-yard field goal with 2:04 left in the second quarter rather than try to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Dolphins' 2. Bryant's kick put the Falcons ahead 13-7 but Miami drove 60 yards on eight plays and kicked a field goal as time expired for the half, pulling themselves within 13-10 at the break, as the Falcons continued a season-long tendency to allow quick scoring drives by the opposition.
The game truly began to unravel for the Falcons when -- up in the turnover margin 2-0 -- veteran wide receiver Harry Douglas fumbled on a punt return and Miami recovered at Atlanta's 19 with 1:45 left in the third quarter. The Dolphins cut a 10-point deficit to three when the Falcons blew a coverage and Brian Hartline caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill with 56 seconds left in the third quarter. Late in the game, leading 23-20, the Falcons had a chance to salt away the game but frittered away another opportunity. They earned a first down at Miami's 23 and got inside the red zone but failed to convert on third-and-4, choosing a 36-yard field try by the reliable Bryant. His first miss of the season on five tries came at the wrong time with 4:46 left in regulation, but ultimately the Falcons lost for other reasons. On two critical trips inside the red zone -- at the Miami 2 in the second quarter and at the Miami 17 in the fourth -- the Falcons' offense stalled at the wrong time and produced a total of only three points combined on those two possessions. Elite teams don't miss out on opportunities like that. The last turnover, evening the margin for the game, came on safety Jimmy Wilson's interception of Ryan at the Falcons' 39 with 26 seconds left, ending any possible hope of a comeback. It remains early and the Falcons have plenty of time left to return to the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons under Smith and even to best last season's berth in the NFC Championship Game. But the way things are going, it's starting to look like an uphill climb.