Falcons still in hunt but looking nothing like playoff team

NEW ORLEANS -- Blame it on the officiating. Blame it on the penalties. Blame it on the pair of missed touchdown opportunities near the goal line. Blame it on the dropped passes.

No matter how you dissect what happened to the Atlanta Falcons in Sunday's matchup with the rival New Orleans Saints, it all added up to one thing: a 23-13 loss.

And what a crucial loss it was for the Falcons, who had hopes of capturing the NFC South title by winning their final two games against New Orleans and Carolina. Now at 9-6, they have to focus on simply securing a wild-card berth with a season-ending win over the Panthers after not playing with the sense of urgency one would have expected in such a critical game.

Carolina (11-4) defeated Tampa Bay and still hopes New Orleans (11-4) slips up for the division title. Meanwhile, the Falcons will finish the day still holding on to the sixth and final wild-card spot because they've won tiebreakers over the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys.

Maybe the biggest concern regarding the elements the Falcons controlled Sunday was the ineptitude of the offense. The Falcons got shut out in the first half for the second time this season, with it also happening in Week 6 against New England.

They were 0-for-2 in the red zone against the Saints in the third quarter, when running back Devonta Freeman fumbled the ball at the Saints' 1-yard line. And at the end of the quarter, what the Falcons thought was a 6-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones was confirmed short of the end zone following a challenge.

To top it all off, Freeman got stuffed on fourth-and-1 immediately after the review of Jones' play, symbolic of how depressing a day it was for the Falcons.

The Falcons, who went 1-for-4 in the red zone, didn't score their first touchdown until Ryan hit Tevin Coleman for a 14-yard pass with 2:44 left to play. One touchdown just isn't going to get it done in division play or in any game, for that matter. And to make matters worse, Jones actually had seven catches for 149 yards, but it didn't matter in the grand scheme.

"I certainly was surprised that we didn't have more points today," coach Dan Quinn said. "To have two of those where we're inside the 2- or 3-yard line and not come away with points in that one was the factor, for sure."

The Falcons are now 0-6 this season when they don't reach 20 points.

Glance at the final statistics and another number that sticks out is the 10 penalties for 91 yards, most of those early drive-killers for the Falcons. Quinn refuses to direct blame at the officials for the penalty disparity, with the Saints flagged just three times for 30 yards.

"I know one of the topics is regarding penalties and the big swing from our first game into this game," Quinn said. "We feel like, as a team, that's not something that we put in anybody else's hands. No blame [from] us. We thought we had our opportunities in this game in all three phases."

Eight of those penalties were on offense, including two false starts, an offensive holding, an offensive pass interference, an illegal substitution, an unnecessary roughness penalty on Coleman and unnecessary roughness and face mask penalties on Freeman. Even if some of those shouldn't have been called, a handful showed that the Falcons lacked discipline when they needed to keep their poise.

"We can't put ourselves behind the chains with self-inflicted wounds," Ryan said. "We can't do that. And then when we get our chances to make plays, we've got to make the plays. It's really not that complicated."

The playoffs aren't out of the picture, but the offense needs a face-lift before the postseason begins. It hasn't been the ideal season for the reigning MVP Ryan, but it's hard to blame him when a ball bounces off receiver Marvin Hall's hands and rolls atop the butt of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, leading to Ryan's fourth interception in two games against the Saints this season.

The Falcons have to be able to punch the ball into the end zone from 1 yard away. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will have to conjure up different plays in such scoring situations or go back to using his big fullback in defensive tackle Dontari Poe to help clear holes.

Give the Falcons' defense credit for holding the Saints to 3-of-13 on third down and 0-for-2 in the red zone. And kudos to linebacker Deion Jones, a New Orleans native who picked off Drew Brees for the third time in his career and put his team in position to score a touchdown before Freeman's fumble. But the Falcons can't be themselves without clicking offensively.

We'll see what unfolds against a stingy Panthers defense in the regular-season finale.