TAMPA, Fla. -- Not long after they were officially out of the playoff race, the Atlanta Falcons were out of their locker room, too, most players bolting quickly after Sunday's overtime loss to sit on an idling bus and contemplate a season that ended too prematurely for a franchise that harbored Super Bowl aspirations.
The postgame stretch before which the media is granted entry to a locker room is known in the league as a "cooling-off period." But not even the 25 minutes Atlanta players spent collecting their thoughts following a gut-wrenching 27-24 defeat, a time during which coach Jim Mora abruptly ended his weekly radio interview when the host questioned his decision to punt on a fourth-and-2 play, could take the chill off the disappointment of the moment.
What few players remained, most of them slumped quietly in front of their locker stalls, acknowledged this wasn't how they planned on spending Christmas Eve.
The Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game in 2004, losing at Philadelphia, falling one victory shy of a Super Bowl berth. When the Falcons dispatched the detested Eagles in the regular-season opener this year, it seemed Atlanta was poised to take that one more key step forward, but that wasn't the case.
Sunday's loss, which dropped the Falcons to 8-7 and out of the NFC wild-card chase, was not unlike many of the defeats in a seven-game stretch in which Atlanta lost five times and all but undid a promising 6-2 start to the season. There were injuries that forced some patchwork combinations, especially in the secondary, where overmatched safeties Ronnie Heard and Omare Lowe were forced to play cornerback. There were squandered scoring opportunities, like the blocked 28-yard field-goal attempt that would have won the game just two minutes into overtime.
Mostly, though, there was a kind of inconsistency that marks underachieving teams. That element, unfortunately, was a haunting hallmark of Atlanta's season.
"It's been a tough season for us, up and down a lot, you know?" said quarterback Michael Vick, whose performance through the season reflected his team's roller-coaster ride. "I never thought this season would go the way it did, not after last year, but we've been very inconsistent. We just need to go back to the drawing board and everybody needs to work hard in the offseason so next year will be totally different. We've still got one game left and we've still got to win that one."
The Falcons face Carolina at the Georgia Dome on New Year's Day and a second loss to the Panthers this season would extend a most remarkable feat, with Atlanta having never posted consecutive winning campaigns.
In his postgame remarks, the fiery Mora, who does not reconcile defeat well, suggested that a nine-victory season and an end to the dubious drought for back-to-back winning seasons would "not [be] a bad consolation prize for our fans." Last week, owner Arthur Blank insisted that not making the playoffs would not necessarily mean that his franchise had not progressed.
But on Sunday evening, some candid Falcons players weren't buying into the hollow spin being offered by their bosses. For those players who expected to soar in '05, the excuses and the rationalization emanating from the highest levels of the organization didn't fly.
No one understands nearly as much as players do in the NFL when a team plays poorly. It's the guys on the field who know the truth and best articulate it, and the truth about the Falcons in 2005 is that they were a mediocre bunch, a team that slipped back in a season when it was supposed to move forward.
The fact the Falcons had six players selected to the Pro Bowl last week, their most since '98, could not belie the reality that Atlanta was not the powerhouse outfit it anticipated being. The Falcons defeated just two teams, Minnesota and Miami, that currently have winning records. Their eight victories came against franchises that have an aggregate record of 41-77 -- and none of whom is headed to the playoffs.
Even the stirring open-game victory over Philadelphia paled given the manner in which the Eagles eventually disintegrated.
"How can you say we didn't [regress]?" said Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, his left arm in a sling after suffering an injury to his shoulder on a 65-yard interception return late in the second quarter. "What else would you call it? We went to the [conference] championship game last year, then we beat the [Eagles] team that kept us out of the Super Bowl in our opener this year, and everyone figured, 'OK, here we go.' But instead, we aren't going anywhere but home after next week.
"Maybe I got spoiled last year, going so far into the playoffs as a rookie -- I don't know. But I know this isn't the way this season was supposed to be. We're better than this."
There was a compelling moment during overtime Sunday afternoon that pretty much defined the Falcons' problems for 2005.
In an attempt to determine how a tie would affect his team's playoff status, Mora got on a cell phone with team officials, seeking some guidance. One would think in a sport where preparation means everything, the Falcons and the NFL would have gone into Sunday's contest with every possible playoff scenario figured out and with every last postseason permutation accounted for.
But not even a team whose president and general manager, Rich McKay, is co-chairman of the NFL's powerful competition committee could get a clarification from the league on the ramifications of a tie game. For the faltering Falcons, it seemed, the moment was sadly symbolic of how this backsliding season transpired.
"There were a lot of times," acknowledged tailback Warrick Dunn, arguably the team's best player in 2005, "where we just couldn't come up with the answers."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.