The Falcons spent the spring and all of this week insisting the Super Bowl does not haunt them. Maybe they truly weren't looking for closure here. Whatever the Falcons were seeking Sunday -- maybe it was just a midseason win in a measuring-stick game and nothing else -- it got lost in the gloom that engulfed Gillette Stadium. Atlanta lost 23-7 to the Patriots and, as bad as the visibility was, this game still revealed plenty about the Falcons that will give them fresh nightmares to replace the ones they spent all offseason exorcising.
After opening the season 3-0, Atlanta has lost its last three, and the offense has disappeared. The fog didn't cause the Falcons to be so desperate they attempted a deep pass on fourth-and-6 from near midfield at the two-minute warning of the first half, instead of pinning the Patriots deep. The turnover on downs set up a New England touchdown -- and a 17-0 lead -- with seconds remaining in the second quarter. It didn't send Matt Bryant's 36-yard field goal attempt into the left upright for a miss. It didn't force Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian into goal-line play-calling at the start of the fourth quarter so questionable -- a jet sweep on fourth-and-goal from the 1? -- that even though the far end zone was almost entirely obscured from the press box, reporters could tell the sequence was an abject failure by the shrieking of the fans.
The reality is that this was never much of a rematch at all. Just as the Patriots are starting to round into their current iteration of complementary football, the Falcons are a shadow of their 2016 selves. They entered the game scoring almost 10 fewer points per game and rolling up almost 40 fewer yards per game. They had lost their last two games at home, surrendering a 17-point lead to the Miami Dolphins last week. The explosive team that boasts the reigning NFL MVP at quarterback went more than 80 minutes spanning two games without scoring a single point. On Sunday, they converted just two of their nine third-down attempts.
Coach Dan Quinn's optimism has cushioned what might have been a hard fall for his players after the Super Bowl. But he admitted that his team is not playing with the edge he expects it to have.
"For us to not nail the opportunities we had tonight, that speaks to our edge," Quinn said.
The Falcons have talked a good game about everything being fine, but that confidence, bordering on hubris, is all but gone now. Everything is not fine, and everybody inside the Falcons knows it. They are bewildered and frustrated. Julio Jones, one of the game's most physically dominant receivers, has been oddly underutilized and in the locker room Sunday night, he expressed irritation that 2016 keeps coming up. And he said the Falcons are not frustrated.
"We are never frustrated, let's clear that up and nothing about it is frustrating," Jones said. "It is football, and on any given Sunday, we just have to keep working and just keep putting the work in. We are not going to get down on ourselves and we are not going to hang our heads. We are just going to keep putting the work in and just wait until it pays off."
Even against a defense that has been one of the most vulnerable to the big play, Ryan could not connect and all he could offer was a plaintive explanation about missed opportunities. He especially pointed to a third-down pass attempt to Mohamed Sanu in the red zone -- that was a shade overthrown -- as a source of frustration. It is a pass he should complete, especially against a depleted secondary. But he didn't and the Patriots blocked Bryant's subsequent field goal try. It is inevitable that the Super Bowl memories will be raised again now, as the Falcons struggle.
"I don't think it's a letdown," Ryan said. "I think our energy in practices, our want-to is there. We've just got to find out why we're not executing the way that we're capable of. The only way I know how to do it is get back to work, keep working on those things in practice, making sure that we're as detailed and diligent at practice as we can be. So to me that's what it is. But I don't think there's any letdown from our staff or our guys. I think the intent has been there. I just don't think our production has matched our intent or our want-to."
Whatever parts of their hearts the Patriots took with that Super Bowl comeback, the Falcons also lost something a little more concrete since then, too. Kyle Shanahan is now residing in the Bay Area and he appears to have taken his offense with him. Sarkisian will be on the hot seat now, and it is fair to wonder if the Falcons will have to move play-calling duties to someone else, especially if the Falcons continue to struggle in road games against the Jetsand Panthers. Quinn said there would be no changes to "any grand things."
"What we do, we'll do better," he said.
The Falcons are at a crossroads in a wide-open NFC. But for the second time since February, they have been faced with their own weaknesses -- and this time, they don't have an entire offseason to try to forget about them.
"They're a really resilient group," Quinn said. "Like any competitors, they're pissed."
They ought to be. For a second time.