Close not good enough as Falcons' season continues to fade

ATLANTA -- As much as the Atlanta Falcons try to preach focusing on the next game, they can't ignore what Sunday's last-second loss to the Dallas Cowboys meant in the grand scheme of things.

A team that entered the season touted to be a Super Bowl contender and possibly the first squad to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium now sits at 4-6. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only 12 teams out of 163 since 1990 have qualified for the playoffs after starting 4-6.

The last team to do it was the 2016 Green Bay Packers, who rattled of six consecutive victories to finish 10-6, win their division, and make it all the way to the NFC Championship game, before falling to the Falcons.

Jake Matthews' cousin, Clay, was on that Green Bay team. Maybe the Falcons left tackle can help his team duplicate the feat.

"Stranger things have happened, man," Matthews said.

It indeed has been an odd season for the Falcons, with a string of injuries setting them back from the outset, then inconsistent play on both sides of the ball leading to the sub-.500 record. The low point was a double-digit loss at Cleveland in Week 10, after which linebacker De'Vondre Campbell admitted in a radio interview that the Falcons underestimated their opponent and failed to play with a sense of urgency. Cornerback Desmond Trufant believed the team regained its "swagger" against the Cowboys, yet it didn't equal a W in the end.

The frustration of letting the season slip away was evident in the locker room in the tone of nose tackle Grady Jarrett.

"Ain't nothing to say; it ain't nothing to say but to go back to work," Jarrett said. "Sometimes, we talk too much. ... It ain't no excuse for nothing. That's how I live life. Ain't no excuse. You've got to go to work.

"You're going to get whipped sometimes. You're going to lose sometimes. ... Everybody's checking their own self. One thing, I don't speak for nobody else. I represent the name on my jersey, and I represent this organization with everything I've got. I love the fact that we get the opportunity to go back to work."

The quick turnaround against the Saints on Thanksgiving night in New Orleans does not make things easier. The Saints are the hottest team in the league.

At least that gives the Falcons little time to dwell on what happened against the Cowboys. Mistakes were made across the board, from rookie receiver Calvin Ridley dropping a ball that led to an interception and Cowboys' touchdown, to cornerback Robert Alford not coming up with an interception and not making a stop on Cole Beasley that could have kept the Cowboys from driving in for the game-winning field goal.

No Falcon fell on the fumble caused by defensive tackle Jack Crawford in the third quarter, a costly missed takeaway opportunity on a drive that ended with Dak Prescott's four-yard touchdown run off the read option, where Vic Beasley misread the play. And a Falcons' offense touted for its explosive ability failed to score in the first quarter for the second consecutive game and managed just three field goals through the first three quarters.

Then there was the decision not to try to a 55-yard field goal in the second quarter with the score tied 3-3 and Matt Bryant back in the lineup. Coach Dan Quinn said he and Bryant had decided on a cut-off point, outside of which they wouldn't attempt a kick. Bryant did hit a 53-yarder later in the game.

Now, the Falcons have to figure out how they can maybe salvage the season -- or at least finish above .500 -- with the Saints up next in a hostile environment, along with two other difficult road challenges against Carolina (6-4) and Green Bay (4-5-1). A loss to the Saints would shift the focus to next season and what changes need to be in the offseason to make the Falcons a Super Bowl contender once again.

Close hasn't been good enough for the Falcons. They've lost three home games in the final seconds and have lost four of six games that have come down to the end, including a road loss at Philadelphia.

"We've been in a lot of tight ones and just have not gotten the outcome that we want," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "But we are where we are. And we've got to dig back into it. And that starts Thursday. And we've got to come up with a really good plan and be prepared and ready to go and play our best football Thursday night."