The theme has been frustratingly, maddeningly the same for the Atlanta Falcons. They don’t want it to be this way. They’ve tried to do what they can to avoid this.
But fourth-quarter failures, losing leads late, finding defeat in the most surprising of ways -- it’s how things have been with Atlanta dating to the most memorable one of all, the 34-28 Super Bowl LI loss to New England in 2017.
Atlanta has flipped over part of its roster. It’s in the process of changing the head coach and general manager after the firings of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff earlier this month. And for interim coach Raheem Morris to find success before the end of the 2020 season with a group that has talent, the first thing he needs to do is find a way to break Atlanta’s inability to finish.
In Week 2, the Falcons blew a 29-10 lead (and late 15-point lead) in a 40-39 loss at Dallas. The next week, they blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead in a 30-26 home loss to the Chicago Bears. And then on Sunday, the Falcons botched their strategy to run out the clock before attempting a game-winning field goal on their final drive, allowing the Lions a chance to win they game -- which they did.
Whether it’s defensive meltdowns, offensive breakdowns or mental miscues -- like Todd Gurley II falling into the end zone by inches in the Falcons’ 23-22 loss to Detroit on Sunday -- the team’s biggest issue might be getting out of its own way.
“We’ve got to be better finishers,” Morris said. “Our rushers got to get home. You’ve got to hit the quarterback in those moments. You’ve got to have the ability to pick up the ball when a guy is scrambling around, throwing it up in the air.
“We’ve got to find ways to finish the game better.”
For that, there’s no simple answer other than to do it just once. Get the feeling of "Oh, no, not this again" out of their heads. All they needed to do Sunday was look across to the field to the Lions to see how to do that. The Lions, between the end of last season and the start of this one, had lost 11 straight games and 13 of 14. In four straight games, they lost double-digit leads.
Yet Detroit seems to have found some confidence -- and likely luck -- along the way to right itself to 3-3. So it can be done. Often, all it takes is one time to finish it off. Because repetition can breed familiarity, and that can lead to success.
Or at least no longer thinking: "Is this really how it’s going to go for yet another week?"
Gurley, in his first year in Atlanta, said from his experiences in the league and in sports, “It’s definitely a mental thing.”
“That’s just like any sport, a fight, once you say that, you already beat mentally. You might not say it out loud to your opponent; your opponents might not hear that, but for yourself, you’re already beat mentally,” Gurley said. “You don’t even want to be in that space.
“And obviously, being in this situation multiple times this year, it’s like, ‘Damn, we find a way to keep putting ourselves in this situation.’ But, I mean, it’s cliché, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel."
The Falcons are fighting their way out of that spot right now. Both wide receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan -- two of the longest-tenured Falcons -- said they didn’t believe the team had a mental block when it came to performing late in games.
“We have the right mindset there at the end of the game to go down and move the football down and get ourselves into a scoring situation to win that game,” Ryan said. “We need to do a better job across the board of handling the end of game a little bit better.”