While millions of Americans were watching the series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad, the Atlanta Falcons were falling behind the New England Patriots in the Georgia Dome on Sunday night. After the Patriots put a 30-23 hurting on Atlanta, the Falcons fell to 1-3 on the season.
Is something broken bad with the Falcons?
The simple answer is "Yes." The more difficult question: What’s wrong with the Falcons?
Even with Gonzalez’s career night and Jones’ miraculous 49-yard catch with 1:50 to play in the fourth quarter that set the Falcons up for a potential tying score, Atlanta lost by a touchdown.
The Falcons, who won 13 games in the regular season last year and were just a smidge away from a berth in the Super Bowl, have already lost as many games as they did in 2012—and the season is only four weeks old.
Zach Klein of WSB TV provided some recent, historical data to give the Falcons hope for the playoffs.
#Falcons drop to 1-3. Last 1-3 team to make playoffs.... the 2011 Denver Broncos with Tebow. (Per Elias)— Zach Klein (@ZachKleinWSB) September 30, 2013
While there is still hope, there’s not enough proof through the first four weeks of the season to merit playoff talk for the Falcons.
On the macro level, Atlanta is struggling mightily to score touchdowns in the red zone. Daniel Cox of AtlantaFalcons.com highlighted Atlanta’s red-zone woes dating back to last week.
Dating back to last week, the Falcons now have 5 straight trips into the redzone with no touchdowns. #NEvsATL— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) September 30, 2013
After Cox sent that tweet, the Falcons entered the red zone three more times. Quarterback Matt Ryan connected with Gonzalez on an 11-yard touchdown pass to push the game to 30-20, but the offense stalled twice in the red zone after that.
Change his figure from 0-for-5 to 1-for-8. That’s still abysmal.
Entering its Week 4 game against New England, Atlanta was 6-for-12 (50 percent) in red-zone efficiency. After going 1-for-6 on Sunday night, the Falcons have dropped to 7-for-18 (39 percent) on the season.
It seems impossible that the Falcons could claw out of this 1-3 hole by continually settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.
The Falcons are still having trouble scoring. Period.
With a rookie cornerback and the loss of defensive end John Abraham in the offseason, it was almost expected that the defense would have some growing pains.
When defensive end Kroy Biermann went down with a season-ending Achilles injury and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was added to the short-term inured-reserve list with a Lisfranc injury, the defense was surely going to struggle.
But the big issue isn’t with the defense. The problem is an ineffective offense.
Atlanta put 23 points on the board Sunday and that actually dropped the Falcons' season scoring average to 23.5 points per game. With names like Gonzalez, Jones, Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Steven Jackson, this offense wasn’t supposed to be pedestrian. It was supposed to be otherworldly.
However, the offensive woes shouldn’t be blamed on injuries.
The offensive line has struggled. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only two quarterbacks have been pressured more than Ryan through Week 3.
With White as a shell of his normal self and Jackson out, the offense in Atlanta has had trouble moving steadily with only one star performer per game.
Jones has typically been the guy. Through four games, he’s caught 27 passes for 373 yards. On Sunday, he and Gonzalez both starred.
But this team can’t right the ship with only Jones and Gonzalez playing up to potential. Others will have to step up.
Well, there are some troubles to fix on a micro level too. The first is with Ryan.
Ryan had a fabulous amount of yards through the air on Sunday, throwing for 421 yards and two touchdowns. That yardage total obscures the fact that Ryan was grossly off-target on multiple occasions, though.
He missed an open White in the flat in the red zone in the second quarter and an open Jacquizz Rodgers when the Falcons were driving in the fourth quarter.
There was more evidence of Ryan’s off night throughout the game.
"I just missed the throw," said Ryan after the game. "It was a bad throw. Roddy ran a good route and I made a poor throw."
Head coach Mike Smith also had moments of weakness Sunday.
Should Mike Smith have kicked a field goal in the second quarter instead of going for it on fourth down?
Possibly bowing to pressure to increase Atlanta’s level of productivity in the red zone, Smith called for the Falcons to attempt a fourth-down play from New England's 7-yard line. The play—which happened to be Ryan’s wayward pass to White—failed and the Falcons missed out on putting three points on the board.
In the fourth quarter with just under three minutes to play, after Atlanta kicked a field goal to move to within a touchdown of the Patriots, Smith called for an onside kick.
The Falcons still had all three timeouts and the two-minute warning approaching, but Smith wanted to try and get the ball back immediately.
The onside kick failed.
New England ultimately gave Atlanta the ball back with plenty of time to tie the game, but how much better could the Falcons' field position have been had Smith told Matt Bosher to kick the ball deep?
There are myriad items for the Falcons to fix—both on the field and the sideline. Atlanta is 1-3 and reeling.
This franchise had high hopes at the beginning of the season. If any of those hopes are to be salvaged, Atlanta must stop leaning on Gonzalez and Jones and demand more from other members of the offense.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.