CHARLOTTE — When All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones dropped a wide-open 39-yard touchdown pass with just under nine minutes left in regulation Sunday, you knew what kind of day it had been for the Atlanta Falcons.
Jones’ bobble magnified another implosion for the Falcons in a 20-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons actually looked poised to silence the crowd at Bank of America Stadium after jumping out to a 10-0 lead after one quarter, building steam off two forced fumbles by strong safety Keanu Neal. But they’ve developed a reputation for blowing such leads.
They did it again Sunday.
“We’ve been under the same roof, the 2017 team, for eight games,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We’re going to continue to address the areas that we need to improve on.”
A game that could have served as a statement to the rest of the NFC South turned out to be the same old story. It marked the third time this season that the 4-4 Falcons blew a lead to lose a game. They led 10-7 at home against Buffalo at halftime only to lose 23-17. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead at home against Miami only to lose 20-17.
And then came Sunday.
The Falcons dropped their division opener to the Panthers after supposedly having built momentum with last week’s close road win over the New York Jets. Now it’s fair to wonder if Quinn’s team can recapture any of the swagger from last year’s Super Bowl run in time to make a playoff run — or make the playoffs, period. Upcoming games at home against the Dallas Cowboys and on the road against the Seattle Seahawks will test the Falcons’ ability to “reset” and get back on track. Regrouping really hasn’t worked too well thus far.
The Falcons’ latest failure can be traced back to a second-quarter sequence that could have given them possibly a stranglehold on an important road win. They faced second-and-2 from Carolina’s 36-yard line with 5 minutes, 54 seconds left before halftime. What followed were three consecutive running plays for 1 yard, including a failed fourth-and-1 by Devonta Freeman. It was a series of plays that had critics calling for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s head again, although the execution wasn’t there, either.
“We have to execute as players better than we did,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to be able to move the chains with three opportunities from 2 yards or less, regardless of what we’re calling — run or pass.”
Rather than driving for possibly a 17-0 lead right then, the Falcons put the Panthers in position for their first touchdown with penalties on Austin Hooper (illegal crackback) and Brian Poole (unnecessary roughness). Then, two plays after Christian McCaffrey’s 4-yard touchdown run, Ryan threw his seventh interception of the season, this one to Mike Adams on a pass he was trying to get to Hooper down the middle of the field.
“We’re going to stay aggressive, for sure,” Ryan said of the interceptions. “Felt like we have an opportunity with Hoop in front of the safety. They made a good play. That’s one of those situations, disappointing. We’ll look at the film and see how we need to be better moving forward, but we’re going stay aggressive.”
The Panthers turned the turnover into Cam Newton’s 9-yard touchdown run, and turned the tide of the game.
Some of the same issues continued to haunt the Falcons. They went 4-for-12 on third down, not to mention 0-for-3 on fourth down. They had eight penalties for 70 yards, some of them foolish defensive flags. And they couldn’t pick up a single yard when they needed it most and finished with just 53 rushing yards on 18 carries.
Although the Falcons weren’t out of it until the very end, thanks to a late Tevin Coleman 19-yard touchdown reception, they still have to learn how to finish.
“We just lost,” Freeman said. “I guess we didn’t click. We will go back to the drawing board, figure out what we need to do to win, and win.”