The Atlanta Falcons hope they’re on their way to repeating last year’s second-half surge.
After an 0-5 start that resulted in GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn getting fired, the Falcons have won three of their last four games under interim head coach Raheem Morris. A big reason for the turnaround is they’ve been able to hold on to fourth-quarter leads -- something they struggled with before owner Arthur Blank made the changes.
“When your offense is as talented as the one that we have with Julio [Jones] and Matt Ryan and Todd Gurley II and Hayden Hurst and Calvin Ridley and all of the guys playing at a high level like they are, sometimes you’re going to get leads in this league,” Morris said.
“Sometimes you have to figure out how to keep those leads by not getting so confined into a box that you limit yourself. We’d like to come out and be more aggressive, come out in a personnel group that fits us best and do some of the things that we do better.”
The Falcons (3-6) are doing several things better in the last four games than they did in the first five:
Offensively, they’re averaging six more points, Ryan is averaging 30 more yards passing per game, and they’ve been better on third downs (47.2%, up from 40.6%).
Defensively, the Falcons are giving up 81 fewer yards and 10 fewer points per game and are much better on third-down conversions (32.6%, down from 43.3%).
But perhaps the biggest thing, at least according to linebacker Deion Jones, is that the Falcons are closing out games.
“First through fourth quarter, just finishing out, whether it’s a third-down stop or a goal-line stop,” Jones said. “We’ve been capitalizing on it and being on the same page and really standing up in those moments.”
Atlanta blew a 15-point lead and a 16-point fourth-quarter lead in Week 2 and Week 3 losses to Dallas and Chicago. Against the Cowboys, the Falcons gave up TD drives of 75 and 76 yards, failed to recover an onside kick, and allowed the Cowboys to get in position for a game-winning field goal as time expired -- all in the game’s final eight minutes. The Bears had touchdown drives of 62, 55 and 44 yards in the game’s final nine minutes.
“When you’re talking about defense, you just want to talk about how you get better at owning those moments in the two-minute catch-up type of ball," Morris said. "Those are the moments that have hurt us the most in the beginning half of the season, so those are the moments we want to improve on and get better at and getting after the passer. ”
Meanwhile, the Falcons offense managed just 12 yards in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys and had 27 yards and an interception against the Bears.
With the exception of the Detroit game -- when Gurley was unable to keep himself from going over the goal line, giving the Lions the chance to win the game with a touchdown -- the Falcons have held on to their fourth-quarter leads under Morris. Had they been able to do that against Dallas and Chicago, they would be 5-4 -- which would have them one game behind Seattle for the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC.
Things get significantly tougher now, though. The Falcons have two games against both New Orleans (7-2) and Tampa Bay (7-3) remaining, plus games against Las Vegas (6-3) and Kansas City (8-1). According to ESPN Analytics, the Falcons have the most difficult remaining schedule. They face only one team with a losing record: the Los Angeles Chargers (2-7).
Can they duplicate last season’s surge, when they won six of their final eight games?
“It’s just a matter of the process,” Morris said. “We trust our process. We deliver a simple, small message to the guys and they’ve been able to go out there -- and give them credit -- and execute it. They’ve been taking the message. They’ve been taking the keys to victory and they’ve been able to accomplish a couple of them. Three to be exact. We fell short in one game and we’ve got to continue to move on.
“It’s the 1-0 mentality, the guys going out, executing the ability to force our will, executing the ability to do their jobs, score and get the ball back, and it’s just been a simple philosophy for us to go out there and follow each week.”