After Sunday’s 27-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins dropped the Falcons to 1-2 on the season, the idea of Atlanta playing in MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII seems far-fetched.
The Falcons jumped out to an early 10-point lead Sunday and squandered it. A combination of red-zone mistakes and inefficiency allowed Miami to stay in the game long enough for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill to orchestrate a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons have some problems. Combine those problems with a horde of injuries and a 3-0 NFC South foe in New Orleans, and Atlanta is looking up at a massive hill to climb just to make it into the playoffs, much less land in the Super Bowl.
So what’s going on with the Falcons?
This team blows early leads
Dating back to the playoffs last season, the Falcons have blown, or almost blown, five double-digit early leads.
Before Sunday's loss, Atlanta jumped out to a 21-0 lead in Week 2 but held on to win and had a 10-0 lead on the Saints early before being knocked off in Week 1.
In the 2012 playoffs, Atlanta was up by 20 on the Seattle Seahawks and 17 against the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons needed a late miracle to beat Seattle and couldn’t get it done against the 49ers.
Atlanta has to figure out how to jump out early and blow some team away instead of taking its foot off the gas when it gets a lead, and it will have to be consistent in its approach.
In its three games, the Falcons have outscored opponents 31-0 in the first quarter and then been outscored 74-40 in the final three quarters.
Far too few red-zone touchdowns
According to the website Team Rankings, Atlanta ranks 24th in the league in red-zone touchdowns. The team has scored touchdowns just 50 percent of the time the offense has driven inside the 20-yard line.
Against the Dolphins, Atlanta had five red-zone possessions. The Falcons scored just two touchdowns and converted two out of three field goals.
This high-powered offense drives the ball well between the 20-yard lines, but it has trouble crossing into the end zone. Too many field goals and not enough touchdowns could be the ultimate demise of this team.
Atlanta’s offensive line has trouble in short-yardage situations. Late in the second quarter, the Falcons had the ball on Miami’s 11-yard line and a first down. On 1st-and-3, running back Jason Snelling was snuffed for zero yardage on run plays. Atlanta only put three points on the board even though the offense had the ball on the 2-yard line on third down.
Last season the Falcons had the fewest penalties in the NFL, with only 3.3 per game for 25.3 yards.
The 2013 season has been a different story. Through three games, Atlanta has been penalized 16 times for 131 yards. Even though the Falcons still rank 11th in the league, penalties are up 62 percent from last year. This is not like a Mike Smith-coached team.
In his tenure in Atlanta, Smith's Falcons have never finished lower than ninth in the league in penalties assessed and twice have been the least penalized team in the league.
Injuries aren’t to blame
Starting running back Steven Jackson may miss anywhere from two to four weeks with a hamstring injury. But the Falcons didn’t miss him on Sunday.
Jacquizz Rodgers and Snelling combined for 139 yards on the ground and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. They also totaled six receptions and a touchdown catch.
The offensive line fared well without Sam Baker, who missed Sunday’s game with a knee/foot injury. For the first time all season, Matt Ryan wasn’t sacked, and offensive tackle Lamar Holmes looked good in his transition from the right to the left side.
Injuries had a negative impact in the middle of the field. The Falcons had trouble stopping the run once a ball-carrier broke past the line of scrimmage. This is where Atlanta missed Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon. The Falcons also had coverage issues in the middle of the defense.
Better tackling from the linebackers and safeties will clear some of this up, and the emergence and further growth of Joplo Bartu will help in coverage.
The last thing any team wants to look at when it is 1-2 and in desperate need of a win is the New England Patriots on a Sunday night nationally televised game. But that’s what the Falcons have staring at them in Week 4.
If Atlanta can fix these three problems, there’s a chance of altering the course of this season. But the “Super Bowl or bust” motto needs to be crumpled and thrown away. This team has to find a way to sneak into the playoffs and hope that a couple of things go right.
First, the Falcons must grab an early lead and keep it handily. This is extremely important to their psyche. Then, they have to figure out how to score touchdowns in the red zone.
After that, knowing Smith, the penalty issues will be fixed and the team should probably get Jackson and Weatherspoon back from their injuries before the playoffs. At that point, it can pull White's mantra out of the garbage and again put it into motion.
But unless the Falcons fix these three issues, they aren’t going to even make the playoffs.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.