The 2018 season has gone terribly awry for the Atlanta Falcons. However, no one is to blame.
Catastrophic injuries compounded with stalled last-minute drives have the Falcons (4-6) in a position where they likely need to run the table with six games remaining to sneak into the postseason.
Atlanta’s must-win run starts against the New Orleans Saints — the hottest team in all of the NFL — on Thursday night in New Orleans.
For those not up to date, New Orleans is 9-1 this season and coming off a 48-7 thumping of the Eagles on Sunday in the Big Easy.
Yep, the Falcons are hanging on by a thread in the playoff conversation. Now, a national television audience will see the Falcons put out of their misery after a day full of Thanksgiving turkey, dressing and all the fixings.
Finger pointing is already going rapid fire among Atlanta fans. However, there’s no road map to matching the preseason expectations of winning a Super Bowl, especially after three of the Falcons’ best defensive players went down in the first month of the season. Some want coach Dan Quinn chased out of town. But not even Bill Belichick could make a contender out of a club with as many injuries as the Falcons.
Others question the skill set of franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, despite the fact he entered Monday leading the league in passing yards (3,306) and has thrown only four picks in 10 games. He’s not elite, they say, and not worth a second $100 million-dollar contract.
I beg to differ with that assessment. Without Ryan under center, Atlanta could be a one-win team right now.
When things go wrong, there’s always got to be a guy who takes the fall. Things have certainly gone wrong for Atlanta.
However, when costly injuries are the catalyst, there’s no road map for the upcoming offseason to make it all better through the draft or free agency.
The fact remains that the Falcons have one of the most talented teams in the league.
And certainly the most unlucky.
In the first meeting against mighty New Orleans, safety Ricardo Allen went out with a season-ending Achillies injury, just three weeks into the 2018 campaign
In each of the first three games, Atlanta had a key cog to its lineup being helped off the field, then handed a diagnosis that would take them out of play the rest of the season.
In Week 1, fellow safety Keanu Neal was lost when he went down with a season-ending knee injury against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. That same night, the anchor to the linebacking corp, Pro Bowler Deion Jones, went down with a foot injury that has forced him out of every game since.
As injuries started to compound, Atlanta found itself in the tenuous position of having to try to score every time it marched down the field. While the Falcons have made strides under second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, they haven’t been able to make up for the short-handed, patchwork defense Atlanta has had to march out on the field.
The injuries on the offensive side have been nearly as problematic, beginning with starting guard Andy Levitre going out against the Panthers in Week 2 with a season-ending tricep injury.
Atlanta’s other starting guard, Brandon Fusco, was lost in the win against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.
The running backs group has been thin since often-injured Devonta Freeman went down with a groin ailment against the Steelers. He was placed on injured reserve but could still return before season’s end.
It feels like everyone has been injured for Atlanta this season, except for Ryan and playmaker Julio Jones at wide receiver.
Even with the injuries, the Falcons have been in position to win most of their games. But the constant repeat this season with the team has been failing to convert on offense late in games. Four of Atlanta’s six losses came on the final possession of the contest.
Against Philly, the season started with Ryan’s pass to Jones short of the end zone on the final play, which made the Falcons 0-1. Atlanta also had a chance against New Orleans in Week 3, but a promising drive late in the fourth quarter that started with Ryan throwing the ball well stalled abruptly around midfield in the final minute, sending the game to overtime.
New Orleans made Atlanta pay on the next drive as quarterback Drew Brees ran it in for the game-winning 1-yard score. At that point, the Falcons were 1-2 and looking at an aggravating trend in the making.
Despite the rocky start, the Falcons season didn’t go completely off the rails, even after a pitiful performance against the Cleveland Browns, losing 28-16.
Atlanta couldn’t stop Browns running back Nick Chubb, who we all remember from his days with the Georgia Bulldogs.
Falcons fans were left tired and defeated, but still clinging to hope after that one on Nov. 11.
Then Sunday, Atlanta was crushed by Dallas’ last-second field goal that gave the Cowboys a 22-19 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
At that point, the Falcons went from the playoff bubble to longshot, at best.
Now, Atlanta can still make the playoffs. Six straight wins to end the season is possible, just not probable, given the injury bug that has loomed like a dark cloud over the Falcons all season.
Certainly, if the Birds can get over the first hurdle against the Saints on Thanksgiving, if would give them a glimmer of hope down the stretch.
However, this ugly season with one player after another leaving the field on a cart or under the assistance of trainers doesn’t feel promising to finish with a playoff berth.
For that, no one is to blame.
Just chalk it up to Atlanta always coming out excessively bruised and battered in what is a violent sport.
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at email@example.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.