The game couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start for the Atlanta Falcons, who recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff at the 12-yard line.
But the inability to turn that gift into points set the tone for another lopsided defeat to a contender as the Falcons fell 31-13 to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
“When you’re playing a good football team in an important game, you have to find ways to score and you have to take advantage of those opportunities,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “That’s something we have to be better at moving forward. When you get turnovers, you get short-field opportunities, you have to go attack and find a way to get the job done.
The Falcons (6-8) failed at that repeatedly as they were unable to score a touchdown on 13 plays they ran from the 10-yard line or closer, including five from the 1.
Only one team in the past 30 years ran more plays from the 1-yard line without scoring and the Falcons failed to score a TD on all three goal-to-go drives, marking the first time they did that in a game since 2004.
“We made plays down the field, but we didn’t make the critical plays down in the red zone,” coach Arthur Smith said. “That was the difference in the game. Credit to San Francisco. They had a say, and they stopped us in the red zone.”
It started on the opening drive following the fumbled kickoff return from JaMycal Hasty. Two plays later, Atlanta was at the 1 after a 7-yard pass from Ryan to Kyle Pitts.
Cordarrelle Patterson appeared to run it in on the next play, but replay overturned it. Ryan then threw an incomplete pass on second down, Patterson was stopped for no gain on third down and Ryan was unable to hit Pitts on fourth down.
“We’ve got to be better,” Ryan said. “In short-yardage situations, where you just need a yard, we’ve got to find a way to really convert those at a high level. Good football teams do that. We weren’t good enough at that today.”
The Falcons got down close again three more times in the second half, but settled for a 22-yard field goal from Younghoe Koe in the third quarter after Ryan threw incompletions on second and third down.
They then were stopped again in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-1 from the 8 on one drive and the 1 on another.
That added up to a fifth loss in as many games against teams with winning records with Atlanta being outscored by 23.8 points per game. Those losses have left the Falcons in 11th place in the NFC with three games to go.
“We’ll just keep swinging,” Smith said. “A lot of crazy things have happened in the NFL. So we’ll try to get the next one. We’re going home, we’ll just keep chipping away and see what happens. Because there’s a lot of things, what it looks like today, that’s not how it’s going to look like after Week 18. You get to the last week of the season, you just want to have a mathematical chance.
“Crazier things have happened.”