Running back Michael Turner had given the Falcons the power runner they hadn’t had since Jamaal Anderson almost 10 years ago. John Abraham finished third in the league in sacks and had kept opposing quarterbacks on their heels all season.
Unfortunately for Atlanta fans, Ryan, Turner, and Abraham each picked the wrong time to have a bad day.
Ryan, who had only thrown 11 interceptions in 16 games during the regular season, threw two against the Cardinals.
Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, was held to 42 yards against Arizona.
Abraham, who finished the regular season with 16.5 sacks, didn’t get to Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner once and only had two tackles.
The result, as you can imagine, was a disappointing 30-24 loss in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs and the end to the Falcons’ season.
Under first-year coach Mike Smith, the Falcons went way above and beyond preseason expectations. Most prognosticators picked Atlanta to finish with five or six wins this season.
Why was the loss to Arizona so hard to swallow? Because the Falcons should have beaten the Cardinals, that’s why. Trailing by only six points at 30-24 late in the game, the Falcons defense had Arizona in a perfect spot: third and long.
The Cardinals faced a third-and-16 with just over two minutes remaining in the game. An Atlanta stop on that play, and the Falcons would have gotten the ball back with plenty of time for Ryan to lead the offense to a score and a 31-30 comeback win.
Warner dropped back to pass and linebacker Keith Brooking was covering tight end Stephen Spach as he came off the line. All of a sudden, Brooking left Spach and picked up running back Edgerrin James about five yards from the line of scrimmage.
Warner, an 11-year veteran, immediately saw Brooking leave Spach and he hit the tight end over the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain and the end of the Falcons’ season.
On a third-down play where the Cardinals needed 16 yards, why would Brooking pick up a running back five yards off the line instead of a tight end 15 yards downfield?
Brooking has been playing this game for 12 years. The coverage mistake he made was one a rookie linebacker might have made.
Once the Cardinals got that first down, the game was over. Atlanta had no timeouts remaining and Arizona ran the clock out for the franchise’s first home playoff victory since 1948.
This was a successful season for the Falcons. They have a great coach, a bright, young quarterback, a franchise running back and the pieces with which to build for the future.
However, this was a bitter way to end things. Atlanta fans have to feel like this was a game that the Falcons gave away.