The play that will haunt the Atlanta Falcons this week, maybe this season, is the one constantly rerun in Sunday highlights: an airmailed, across-the-body Matt Ryan pass that sailed well over a wide-open Roddy White at the 3-yard line on fourth down.
The Falcons had correctly determined they couldn't beat the New England Patriots by kicking field goals; after already hitting one to start the game, they weren't going for another in just the second quarter. Given that White got open on fourth-and-2, it seemed to be the correct play call. Ryan will take the heat for a poor pass, which, had he completed it, likely would have given the Falcons the lead in a game they eventually lost.
But really, the Falcons' problems -- and among the biggest reasons they are one of the NFL's disappointments at 1-3 -- were summed up in a more pedestrian play just before Ryan's mistake. On third-and-10 from the Patriots' 15, Ryan's pass to Jason Snelling was complete -- for just 8 yards. That was only one of the five third-down failures inside the Patriots' 25 for the Falcons -- they missed on the first drive of the night, when they settled for a field goal. They went just 1-for-6 on third-down conversions in that extended red-zone range.
The injuries to the Falcons' defense have been well-documented -- linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is on short-term injured reserve with a foot sprain, defensive end Kroy Biermann is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, cornerback Asante Samuel sat out Sunday with a thigh injury -- and their almost complete lack of a pass rush is obvious.
But the injury bedeviling them most now is to Steven Jackson's hamstring/thigh. The exact nature of the ailment is unclear, with differing reports and timelines for recovery. No matter. Jackson was hurt in Week 2, hasn't played since and could be out for two more weeks. And each time the Falcons get achingly close to the end zone, only to be turned away, they are reminded that for all of Julio Jones' jaw-dropping explosiveness, they haven't been able to execute the more fundamental plays when the game is constricted.
"Offensively, the field shrinks when inside the 20, and they lost their pounder in Jackson, who can push the pile and give them inside physical run presence," said an NFL personnel executive who has closely watched the Falcons. "I can't put an exact finger on it, other than a failure to execute and a failure to win on their third-down offense. Be curious what their third-down conversion percentage is when they get inside the 25-yard line."
It's not good. The Falcons converted just 3 of 13 third-down opportunities from within the opponents' 25-yard line during the first four games. The one time they didn't struggle on third down in close range? Against St. Louis, the Falcons' lone vanquished opponent, when Atlanta never faced a third down inside the 25. The failed attempts take every possible form: incomplete passes, too-short completions, stuffed runs, sacks. It is a laundry list of frustrations.
"There were a number of contributing factors to our inefficiency, not just one area, not just one group," Falcons coach Mike Smith said Monday. "We had some protection issues. We had some routes that were not run right. We had some drops. We had some missed throws. I can assure you that we're addressing it as a coaching staff, and we're addressing it with our team."
The Falcons' red-zone struggles aren't a secret. Smith spent last week talking about the need for greater efficiency. But even Tony Gonzalez's career night (12 catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns) could not save Atlanta on Sunday. No team has been inside the opponents' 20-yard line more often -- 18 times -- than the Falcons so far this season. But they rank just 28th in red-zone efficiency, with seven touchdowns and seven field goals, a 38.9 percent touchdown rate. Gonzalez had the Falcons' only touchdown from inside the red zone against the Patriots.
"You've got to be able to put up points, and we should," Gonzalez said after the game.
Well, yes, they should. But on Sunday, the Falcons joined the Houston Texans as the most recent examples of an often-forgotten lesson the NFL offers from season to season: Teams do not simply pick up where they left off in the previous campaign.
The Falcons and Texans were considered prime Super Bowl contenders, having each earned a playoff victory last January. Now they are a combined 3-5 and already falling behind in their respective divisions. The Falcons, who host the New York Jets on Monday night, already have matched their loss total from the entire 2012 regular season, and they still have meetings with the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers on their schedule. They are three games behind the Saints in the NFC South. And as mentioned above, Jackson's availability for future games is unclear after an ESPN report that he could be out at least another two weeks.
With an extra day before the next game, Smith said the Falcons would do some self-scouting before turning their attention to the Jets. Perhaps the team will find it comforting that each of its three losses has been by just one score. The games are very close, even as the distance to a touchdown seems very far.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.