ATLANTA -- That playoff game the Atlanta Falcons lost in January is still going on.
It has lingered through a lockout and a lackluster first four games. It dragged on even further Sunday night as the Green Bay Packers defeated the Falcons 25-14 at the Georgia Dome. Five games into the season, it’s painfully obvious that the Falcons aren’t the same football team they were before that playoff game.
This game was closer than the 48-21 playoff victory that No. 6-seed Green Bay had in the same building, but this loss might have been even worse for the Falcons. It came after the Falcons, who were 13-3 and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs last season, thought they had filled some of the holes that had been exploited in the season-ending loss to the Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Falcons went out and traded up in the draft and took receiver Julio Jones. In free agency, they got the pass-rusher they wanted in Ray Edwards. If the Falcons weren’t all-in in their quest for a Super Bowl (or at least the first playoff victory in coach Mike Smith’s tenure), they had only a chip or two left on the table.
Now, they’ve dealt themselves a terrible hand. They’re 2-3. They have as many losses as they had all of last season, and despite a promising start Sunday night that turned out to be nothing but a tease, they showed they’re a team with all sorts of problems.
“It’s early,’’ quarterback Matt Ryan said. “The season is a marathon. We need to bounce back. The message in our locker room and amongst our guys was that we need to put this behind us.’’
Ryan was talking about what happened Sunday night. But he might as well have been talking about everything that has happened to the Falcons since the January loss to Green Bay. Starting with that game, the Falcons haven’t been anything like the 2010 team. They haven’t been much like any of Smith’s three previous teams.
Those three teams put together the first two (and then three) consecutive winning seasons in franchise history by playing smart, efficient football. This team, despite having the most talented roster since Smith has been coach, isn’t playing that same style.
“We’re certainly not where we would have like to have been,’’ Ryan said. “But we are where we are. What we did last year doesn’t really make a difference as to what we’re going to do this year. I think the football team that we have this year needs to improve. We’re going to do that.’’
They had better hurry up. Despite the talk about it being “early,’’ it’s starting to get a little late. The Falcons are in third place in the NFC South. The 4-1 New Orleans Saints are alone atop the division, and the Falcons won't be able to overtake them if they continue playing the way they’ve started this season.
The Falcons were plain bad in losses to Chicago and Tampa Bay. They nearly squandered a huge lead in Seattle last week, and their other victory came when they got hot late against Philadelphia. They haven’t played anything close to a complete game yet.
That’s what makes the latest loss so particularly painful. For a change, the Falcons came out looking like the Falcons of old -- or maybe the Falcons they were supposed to be this season. The offense looked as sharp as it has all season as the Falcons moved 80 yards on 13 plays to score a touchdown on the opening drive.
The defense, which also had struggled, followed that up with a turnover -- a fumble forced by cornerback Brent Grimes and recovered by defensive tackle Vance Walker. The offense came back on the field, looking as it had on the first drive. Michael Turner scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0, and it looked as though the Falcons had finally escaped the shadow of that embarrassing playoff loss.
Then it all fell apart. It wasn’t quite all at once. The defense kept playing well for the rest of the first half, limiting Green Bay to two field goals.
“At 14-6 at the half, you’ve got to like where you’re at against a potent offense,’’ Smith said. “After that, it wasn’t the type of football we want to play.
The Falcons couldn’t keep Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 127 yards in the first half, and the Packers out of the end zone in the second half. Rodgers finished with 396 passing yards and two touchdowns.
“The guy’s playing unbelievably right now,’’ Smith said.
There’s no doubt about that. But Ryan threw for only 87 yards in the second half and was intercepted twice. The offense didn’t come close to scoring in the second half.
“They won the ballgame,’’ Smith said. “They’re a very good football team. My hat is off to Coach [Mike] McCarthy and his staff. We have to get better.’’
Give praise to Rodgers, McCarthy and the rest of the Packers. But put plenty of blame on the Falcons. They’re the ones who jumped out to a 14-0 lead in their own stadium, then watched the Packers score 25 straight points. They’re the ones who keep saying everything is going to be fine, even though almost everything we’ve seen for five games suggests otherwise.
“I know we’re 2-3,’’ tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “We just need to rattle off a couple of wins, and we’ll be OK.’’
Yeah, he could be right. The talent is there on paper. But the Falcons had better get themselves out of whatever rut the playoff run started. If they don’t, they won’t be in the playoffs in January.