ATLANTA -- Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed walked out of the locker room with a parting shot late Thursday night. With his luggage in hand, Reed, unprovoked, had a message for the media before exiting the Georgia Dome.
"We let them off the hook," Reed said loudly to make sure everyone could hear.
"We" was the Ravens' defense, which has been one of the most consistently dominant units of the past decade. "Them" was the Atlanta Falcons, who improved to 7-2 after an exciting -- and some would say controversial -- 26-21 victory over Baltimore (6-3). In what was viewed as a possible Super Bowl preview, neither team disappointed as each club held the lead in the final minute.
The difference was the Falcons' last drive, where they marched 80 yards in 45 seconds against a Ravens' defense that had snuffed out those scenarios many times before. A 33-yard touchdown catch by Falcons receiver Roddy White over Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson sealed the game for Atlanta.
Wilson argued vehemently with the referees that he was pushed by White, but no flag was thrown.
"I was playing coverage, man, and I guess it's tough to play good coverage in this league," said Wilson. "I don't know. I can't call it."
The Ravens have felt they were on the short end of calls or no-calls before. But the overriding theme in the locker room this time was that they missed chances to make key stops.
"They made the plays at the end and we didn't," Ravens cornerback Chris Carr said bluntly. "It was a very difficult loss. With our defense, we figured that we would stop them."
Here are some other observations from Baltimore's loss:
Ravens were slow starters: Baltimore made a valiant effort by scoring back-to-back touchdowns to overcome a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. But a poor first half put the Ravens behind most of the game. Baltimore couldn't get anything going early and fumbled a punt return, which led to Atlanta taking a 10-0 halftime lead. Atlanta is extremely tough to beat at home, especially with the lead. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has an 18-1 record in the Georgia Dome.
"Anytime you give points away early, it's hard to come back and beat a team like that no matter how much you fight," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "They won the turnover battle [2-0]."
No-huddle trouble: This is a copycat league, and the three teams the Ravens have lost to this season have all used the no-huddle offense. Perhaps stealing a page from the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots, the Falcons began the game up-tempo with their version of the no-huddle and had success, taking a 10-0 lead early. The Falcons did a good job of using the no-huddle to keep personnel on the field for Baltimore. Atlanta spread out Baltimore with three and four receivers and took advantage of the Ravens' struggling cornerbacks, which we will get to next.
Cornerback is an issue: Cornerback was a weakness many anticipated for Baltimore entering the season. That wasn't the case early, but it's certainly true now. Wilson, Carr, Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington all had their bad moments. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was 32-of-50 for 316 yards, with three touchdowns and a 101.8 passer rating. The Ravens were doing a lot of rotating at cornerback. No one could contain White, who had 12 receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns. A lot of attention will be put on Wilson's final play, but Atlanta had its way with Baltimore's pass defense throughout the game.
Third-down woes: Baltimore struggled on third down in the first two quarters on offense and all game on defense. Baltimore converted 1-of-4 third downs in the first half, but got better in the second, when the team was 5-of-7 and sparked the comeback. But defensively, the Falcons kept picking the Ravens apart on third down, going 12-of-20 (60 percent). Atlanta got 16 first downs via the pass.
"That's the key right there," Reed said. "Instead of us getting off the field, they converted when they had to. Against a good team, you can't do that."
Overall, the Ravens still left the Georgia Dome a confident team. There are some holes that need to be patched. But in defeat, Baltimore proved once again that it can play with any team in any stadium.
The Ravens have 10 days to rest and prepare for the lowly Carolina Panthers (1-7), a team Baltimore aims not to let "off the hook."