By PAUL NEWBERRY (Associated Press)
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) – Mike Smith usually does a good job controlling his feelings.
The Atlanta Falcons coach couldn’t contain himself Monday (Dec. 5) after perhaps the most disappointing loss of a season that’s threatening to come up far short of expectations.
“I’m disappointed. I’m mad,” Smith said. “We pride ourselves on being a smart football team. We’ve not played smart, we’ve not played consistent. We’re not as focused as we need to be, either.”
What made this defeat especially galling was it seemed a perfect chance for the Falcons (7-5) to take control of their playoff fate. They were facing a Houston team down to its third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates, a team that already lost its best defender for the season, then its top receiver during the game.
But an ugly 17-10 loss – which ended with Julio Jones letting a potential tying touchdown pass get knocked from his hands – left Atlanta tied with Detroit and Chicago for the two wild-card spots, with the New York Giants lurking only a game behind.
Atlanta’s hopes of repeating as NFC South champion are definitely fading. New Orleans knocked off the Lions to build a two-game lead on the Falcons with only a month to go.
From all indications, the wild-card race will go right down to the wire, especially since the Falcons have shown little ability to put teams away – even while winning five of their last seven games.
“I guess we’re going to make things hard on ourselves,” receiver Roddy White said, managing a slight smile. “We’re going to test our character. I think that might be a good thing. We seem to respond better with our backs against the wall. We’ll see.”
The Falcons made enough mistakes against the Texans to fill up an all-day film session. Jones, the first-round pick, had another rough day holding on to the ball. Matt Ryan threw two interceptions. A defense that knew Houston would have to run with Yates making his first career start surrendered 111 yards to Arian Foster.
More frustrating were all the mental blunders.
An interception returned for a touchdown by Mike Peterson was wiped out when both Dunta Robinson and Sean Weatherspoon were flagged for holding. James Sanders picked up a fumble and went 90 yards to the end zone, but the play didn’t count as players from both teams charged onto the field, believing it was an incomplete pass.
On a crucial fourth-and-1 late in the game, the Falcons were called for delay of game. Ryan was charged with the penalty, but Smith put the blame on himself.
“That’s unacceptable,” the coach said. “We have a structure in terms of the clock running down, but we didn’t execute it. I take full responsibility for that. It’s nobody’s fault but my own.”
Atlanta takes on Cam Newton and the Panthers (4-8) at Carolina on Dec. 11. There’s little room for error, a striking change from a year ago when the Falcons cruised to the division title with an NFC-leading 13-3 mark.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Falcons still believe they can kick their season into another gear. They point to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season, the defending Super Bowl champions.
The schedule still looks favorable, with the Carolina game followed by contests against Jacksonville (3-8 going into a Monday night game) and Tampa Bay (4-8). The toughest challenge left is a trip to New Orleans (9-3) for a rematch against the Saints, who beat Atlanta in overtime in their first meeting.