Any postseason dreams that the Atlanta Falcons might have been enjoying have quickly turned into nightmares after their 19-16 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game they never led. Following their second-consecutive loss, Atlanta falls to 5-8 on the season and only have two wins after starting the season 3-3.
The Falcons needed this one, and the loss gives Tampa Bay a prime opportunity tonight. If the Buccaneers were to win on Sunday Night Football, they would pull to a game-and-a-half ahead of the Falcons and Atlanta's odds at a playoff appearance would fall to six percent per FiveThirtyEight -- they were 17 percent entering today's game.
The offense has struggled mightily in recent weeks, and it did again this afternoon. Today's 16-point effort marks the fourth time in its last five that the Falcons have failed to eclipse the 20-point threshold. The Marcus Mariota-led offense only managed a meager six first-half points and was unable to sustain drives of any kind. The Falcons' starting quarterback didn't look sharp and had too many missed throws on a day the running game couldn't provide support after only managing 28 rushing yards in the game's first thirty minutes.
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Unfortunately for the Falcons, the defense was not much better. The "bend but don't break" only allowed 19 points, but the Steelers dominated the time of possession for much of the game and scored on all but two possessions. Atlanta didn't force a punt until the fourth quarter.
For as difficult as the first half was, the second was much better for Atlanta. That success started with their re-commitment to the ground game. After only six rushing attempts in the first half, the Falcons ran 22 times for 118 yards in the second. On their third-quarter touchdown drive, the Falcons ran the ball seven consecutive times and only attempted one pass.
That touchdown drive cut the Steelers' lead to only six, and after making their first defensive stand of the game on the subsequent drive, Atlanta looked to be flipping the script. Hope started making its way into Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Atlanta had an opportunity to snatch a lead away from Pittsburgh and they went back to the well. Arthur Smith called 12 running plays on a 64-yard, 16-play drive that soaked up 9:21 of the fourth quarter, but the Falcons beat themselves with a Parker Hesse holding call that nullified a Cordarrelle Patterson touchdown run and Atlanta had to settle for a third Younghoe Koo field goal.
After a second straight defensive stand, the Falcons had the ball in the shadow of their own end zone with under a minute to play. That final drive lasted only one play as Marcus Mariota snuffed out any hope with a game-ending interception to the Steelers' Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The play marked the second-straight game that the Falcons' day ended with a Mariota interception in a one-score game.
That was the story of his day. The veteran quarterback struggled with consistency and he finished with another sub-optimal performance after numerous misses that cost the team. The offense was not able to rely on his arm and it stalled when he was needed most.
Now heading into a bye week three games under .500, the Atlanta Falcons' hopes of reaching the postseason have grown increasingly unlikely and some interesting decisions await head coach Arthur Smith ahead of their matchup with the New Orleans Saints on December 18th.