Atlanta Falcons cannot soar over NFC

Matt Ryan completed barely half of his passes in a lopsided loss to Philadelphia. AP Photo/Mel Evans

PHILADELPHIA -- It all was set up so nicely. Go into Lincoln Financial Field, bury a ghost forever, beat the Philadelphia Eagles and walk away as the unquestioned best team in the NFC.

But the concept of winning an NFC championship in mid-October flew completely over the head of the Atlanta Falcons. In a game where injured Eagles quarterback Michael Vick didn’t even come out of the locker room to see his old team, the Falcons looked like a left fielder responding to a 600-foot shot in a stadium where the fence reads 330 feet.

“We were in a coverage that we should not have the ball thrown over our head,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said about one particular play before going on to others. “The ball was thrown over our head and that happened twice today. You cannot have the ball thrown over your head in this coverage.’’

Kevin Kolb might have taken the starting job away from Vick on a day where he completed 23 of 29 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles defeated the Falcons 31-17. Two of those were the plays Smith was talking about -- a 34-yard strike to DeSean Jackson and an 83-yarder to Jeremy Maclin.

“We gave up way too many explosive plays,’’ Smith said. "You’re not going to put yourself in a chance to win ballgames when you give up the explosive plays that we gave up.’’

No, you’re not and the Falcons may have sore necks after watching the Eagles soar past them. But the amazing thing is, the Falcons still may end up being the best team in the NFC when all is said and done. Heck, at the moment, they still are in the argument. Look at the standings and you’ll see that nobody’s record is better than Atlanta’s 4-2 mark.

The Falcons went into New Orleans a few weeks ago and beat the Saints in a very big game. That elevated them in the eyes of many. What happened against the Eagles was the flip side and it’s proof that the Falcons still haven’t taken that next step that they think is so close.

It might be close and it might all be part of “the process’’ Smith talks about so frequently. Like just about everyone else in the NFC, the Falcons are a hard team to read -- unless you are Kolb.

When they haven’t been raising expectations with a four-game winning streak, they’re playing games like they did against the Steelers in the season opener and like they did against the Eagles.

Kolb finished with a 133.6 passer rating and was sacked only once.

“We didn’t do anything to make him feel uneasy,’’ said defensive end John Abraham.

That’s disappointing because only last week, Abraham and Kroy Biermann were making it look like the Atlanta pass rush could be dominant. There is no doubt this was a step back for the defensive line and an entire defense that had shown so much promise in recent weeks.

“We let some balls get over our heads and they made some great plays,’’ safety Thomas DeCoud said.

No, the Falcons did not grab onto the early-season opportunity to take the unofficial title as the NFC’s best team. But perhaps what happened Sunday might help show them what they still need to do to get there at the end.

“It’s back to the drawing board,’’ DeCoud said. “We corrected mistakes once [after the Pittsburgh game] and, now, we have to correct them a second time.’’

We’ve touched on some of the things the Falcons need to work on defensively. They need the pass rush to be productive, they need better coverage and they need to get rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon back from a knee injury and hope the head injury cornerback Dunta Robinson suffered in a brutal collision with receiver Jackson isn’t too serious.

Smith said he talked with Robinson after the game and the cornerback seemed fine. It sure would help to have Robinson on the field when the Cincinnati Bengals, with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, come to Atlanta next week. Maybe Robinson and Weatherspoon will return in time for the Bengals, but you still have to worry about a defense that let the Eagles pile up 474 yards of total offense.

“It’s never as bad as it seems,’’ Smith said. “It’s never as good as it seems. We will make the corrections and then we will move forward.’’

It’s fair to assume Smith wasn’t just talking about his defense. His offense didn’t have much of a chance as the Eagles jumped out to a 21-0 lead. That helped neutralize Michael Turner, who was held to 45 rushing yards on 15 carries and the Falcons gained only 65 yards on the ground.

Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 250 yards, but completed barely more than half of his passes (23-of-42) and was sacked three times while being intercepted once. The worst offensive statistic of all might have been that the Falcons converted only four of 14 (29 percent) of their third downs into first downs.

It is kind of hard to fathom why the Falcons have been so inconsistent on offense when they have weapons like Ryan, Turner, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, and receiver Michael Jenkins returned to the lineup after missing the first five games with a shoulder injury.

“We didn’t do what we wanted offensively, whether it be run or pass on first or second down,’’ Ryan said. “I think the biggest thing going into next week is to try to improve that early on and trying to get into a better rhythm early on and that is something we’ll work on.’’

Maybe a little creativity on offense might be worth working on as well because the Falcons haven’t shown much of that even when they were winning.

The loss, combined with New Orleans’ win against Tampa Bay, leaves the Falcons and Saints sitting atop the NFC South at 4-2. At this time a year ago, it was becoming obvious the Saints were going to run away with the division.

This season, it’s becoming obvious the NFC South race probably will go down to the wire. Carolina can be scratched, and Tampa Bay is somewhat in it, but it probably will come down to the Saints and the Falcons.

“I know that our guys will bounce back,’’ Smith said. “It’s a long season. There are 16 games and this was one of them. We did not perform up to our capabilities today.’’

Smith is right. The Falcons are capable of so much more. If they can play to their capabilities, the Falcons finally might take that next step. The opportunity is certainly still there as much at the end of the day as it was at the beginning.

They just have to grab onto it in games like this. If they don’t, they’ll end up watching the Saints, and maybe the NFC, fly right over them.