If the Falcons knew how to finish what they start, they’d be on their way to a second straight Super Bowl.
The question now is why don’t they?
What remains so mind-boggling is how they can be so wildly inconsistent between the opening and final whistles with such alarming consistency.
Back in January, we watched in amazement as the Falcons jogged into the locker room with a 20-0 halftime lead over the Seahawks.
The game wound up being a wire-job, with Matt Bryant hitting a 49-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Falcons a 30-28 playoff win. A week later, they jumped out to a 17-0 lead over the 49ers before San Francisco even recorded a first down. This time, the Falcons final drive came up one play short, the 28-24 loss denying the team its second trip to the Super Bowl.
You’d think, with seven months to ruminate over those two games, that the Falcons might have devised a new scenario for this season. Certainly the Falcons brain trust could have come up with something completely different.
There they were last week in New Orleans, having jumped out to a 10-0 lead only to trail — 13-10 at the half. And there they were in the final minutes, frantically driving for the winning touchdown, only to come up 3 yards short in a 23-17 loss.
All of which brought us to Sunday’s encounter with the lightly-regarded Rams.
Predictably, the Falcons began with their best imitation of The Greatest Show on Turf. After the opening kickoff, they sliced right through the Rams, going 80 yards in 11 plays, taking 6:26 off the clock and a 7-0 lead.
Cue the defense for a three-and-out.
After an exchange of five-play drives, quarterback Matt Ryan found Julio Jones in single coverage, and accepted the gift for an 81-yard touchdown and a 14-0 cushion. Cue the defense.
This time, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford’s short toss deflected off of running back Daryl Richardson. “I took my eye off it,” Richardson said after the game. “I was looking to run, and I need to make sure I eyeball that ball and catch it.”
Osi Umenyiora did, and, clutching the football in both hands, lumbered 68 yards for the first touchdown of his career.
“I don’t know,” Umenyiora said when asked to explain his good fortune. “The ball just kind of bounced off the guy’s hand, and I saw it and picked it off. Crazy enough, that’s the first interception I’ve ever had in my life.”
Predictably, the Falcons would be outscored 24-10 over the game’s final 41:25.
During a dreadful stretch that covered the entire third quarter, the Falcons offense chose to run in neutral. They amassed one first down, and ran off 14 plays, for a grand total of 7 yards. And get this: three of the four drives lost yardage.
Even more incredibly, after the Rams cut the lead to 24-17, the Falcons were able to put together the winning drive.
Materializing out of nowhere, they drove 80 yards in nine plays. The clincher came when Jason Snelling bolted through the Rams to score. His 11-yard run was the Falcons’ longest of the day, and accounted for 31 percent of the Falcons total rushing yards on the afternoon.
Don’t feel bad.
So is Falcons coach Mike Smith. Here’s what he had to say near the start of his postgame press conference: “I thought the start was very efficient. We moved the ball well, and made a big play on defense. Scored on defense.”
Later, coach Smith was asked to address the “lull in the third quarter” specifically: “I don’t know unless I watch the tape if it was more mental or physical. We didn’t play nearly as efficiently in the third quarter as we did in the first quarter of the ballgame.”
The good news here is that coach Smith is aware of this phenomena of soporific play following early excitement. The bad news is that he apparently hasn’t followed this common thread back through the past four games.
At this point, it seems logical to assume that he shouldn’t need to look at any more film to ascertain the reason for the falloff in efficiency.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.