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How five minutes erased a potential day of progress for the Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons wasted a three-touchdown game from running back Cordarrelle Patterson. AP Photo/John Bazemore

ATLANTA -- There was, in many ways, progress. It might not seem that way at the moment, after a 34-30 loss to Washington that sent the Atlanta Falcons to 1-3 and left them with a bunch more questions.

That’s what happens when you lose a fourth-quarter lead. When an eight-point lead falls away as the minutes tick down. As a Washington drive continues on and on for 10 plays, slowly eating up clock – which at the moment, seemed good for Atlanta with five minutes left.

Washington scored, cutting Atlanta’s lead to two, 30-28, and everything from there felt and seemed like a team not yet ready for a big stage. Not yet ready for being able to hold a lead in the NFL.

“We had multiple opportunities to win that game and didn’t,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said.

It started before that drive, when a pass interference flag called against Washington was picked up, turning a potential Atlanta first down -- which could have continued momentum -- into a punt with backup punter Younghoe Koo.

After the Washington drive, it continued. The Falcons still led by two when Atlanta went to Mike Davis three times in a row – twice on runs and then once on a screen. The plays gained a combined 6 yards. But why would the Falcons -- who had two rushers gaining 4.8 yards per carry or more Sunday (Wayne Gallman and Cordarrelle Patterson) -- go to Davis, who ran for 1.08 yards per carry and had 13 carries for 14 yards?

It comes down to a plan and trust. Davis had averaged over 4 yards a carry the past two weeks. So Smith trusted Davis. Still does, although like everything he’s going to evaluate every call he has made.

“I’ll go back and look at it, what should I have done different,” Smith said. “That’s all fair. We trust Mike Davis, that’s why he’s in there. It’s about ball security. It’s about making the right decisions, making the right reads.”

Davis said Washington’s defense read those plays “perfectly.” But with Koo punting instead of the injured Cam Nizialek, it left Atlanta in a tough spot needing to punt deep in their own territory. It gave Washington the ball back and the Football Team chunk-played its way to a win. Three of Washington’s nine longest plays in the game came on that drive == including a 30-yard touchdown to J.D. McKissic, a 24-yard completion to DeAndre Carter and a 19-yard completion to Adam Humphries.

It eliminated a game where Atlanta did a lot of things good enough defensively. A game where it had multiple chances to intercept Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke and didn’t. Where safety Erik Harris broke up three passes and Duron Harmon almost intercepted one. Where Terry McLaurin won a moon shot 50-50 ball on T.J. Green for a touchdown that gave Washington some life.

But the final drive, when it came down to it, Atlanta failed.

“In a one-score game, they have the whole playbook open, two-minute drive,” linebacker Foyesade Oluokun said. “I’m not in Dean [Pees’] head, but I’m thinking we’re playing normal football. They played normal football, ran plays they basically ran the whole game.

“Maybe they needed chunks and ran that deep dagger and stuff, bought some time. At the end of the day, we just have to play our plays better than they play theirs.”

Too often in the last five minutes, that’s exactly what happened. Washington made play after play with Atlanta unable to effectively counter. It’s how a potential season-changing win turns into a last-minute loss. How it erases a four-touchdown day from Matt Ryan and the first three receiving touchdown game in Falcons history for Cordarrelle Patterson. Erased a day where Atlanta converted 62.5% of its third downs and gives future opponents things to worry about with Patterson.

It eliminated productive days defensively from Harris (six tackles, three pass breakups) and Avery Williams (six tackles, one quarterback hit) playing snaps in place of the injured Isaiah Oliver. It turned what could have been a two-game win streak into a rough loss, and now Sunday in London against the Jets feels almost like a teetering point for the season.

“Every time you lose, it’s frustrating,” Patterson said. “It don’t matter how you lose. … It’s all frustrating when you lose.”