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The Falcons need to shed their reputation as the NFL’s top choke artists

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The Atlanta Falcons might have one of the best records in the NFC if a couple of last-minute collapses turn into clenched fists.

In the last four Falcons losses, the team has squandered a late lead within the last minute of the game because of defensive lapses. After entire games of dominance, that understandably gassed side of the ball just can’t hold it together for one last drive.

For the Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, it just took a last-second push on offense to drive down the field on an exhausted defense and punch in the winning score.

Situationally, the Falcons could’ve gotten stops in all four of those games. They could be 10-4, amidst the best season the franchise has seen since 2017. The offense would still be underwhelming, and the defense still wouldn’t have the pass rush it needs to join the elite of the NFL.

However, Atlanta would likely be in the driver’s seat for the NFC South and headed to hosting a playoff game at home. Instead, quarterback Desmond Ridder might be getting benched for a second time and coach Arthur Smith is on the hottest seat he’s ever had in his three years coaching the Falcons.

Atlanta has gone from a trendy pick for a surprising NFL contender to one of the league’s most disappointing and apathetic teams. A frisky defense has replaced a stout ground attack on offense as the team’s calling card, as Smith’s noted ability to mount a rushing game has taken a step back, despite drafting a generational running back in Bijan Robinson eighth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Once thought to be a solid option to run Smith’s scheme, Ridder has suffered the ignoble fate of improving while staying the same, with his inability to stop turning the ball over stamping out any other on-field gains. The horribly timed picks and fumbles feel like a feature, not a bug.

Robinson, 2022 first-round wide receiver Drake London and 2021 first-round tight end Kyle Pitts have all flashed elite play this season, but all three are stuck in an offense that can’t use them consistently. The Falcons even have actual depth at running back with Tyler Allgeier and tight end with Jonnu Smith, but that still hasn’t gotten this team to any sort of meaningful touchdown production.

They’re averaging 18.4 points a game, tied with the Tennessee Titans for 27th-lowest in the NFL through Sunday’s games.

Smith was brought over from Tennessee to help the Falcons regain the offensive identity of its banner 2016 season with Kyle Shanahan, and he got two mulligan years with quarterback changes, cap woes and roster reshuffling. However, 2023 was supposed to be a progress point.

Losing to a single-win Panthers team feels like a new low for this regime, even if it can’t quite top the lows of the past (y’know, like 28-3).

As the team’s past four losses prove, the franchise that has desperately tried to shake its history as the NFL’s premiere choke artists has fallen right back into old habits. It’s gotten so bad that Smith was noncommittal on Monday about Ridder starting in the team’s last three games, even after putting him back into the lineup in November after benching him a first time for two games. Backup Taylor Heinicke underwhelmed in his brief starting stint.

After this season ends and the Falcons probably miss the postseason for a sixth-consecutive year, finding an actual solution at quarterback with a meaningful investment feels like a given. The word around the league was that Smith was safe barring a late-season collapse, but losing out to the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints might qualify.

Keeping Smith has its merits, as it’s possible a new quarterback and a reconfiguration of his scheme could get this offense going in a meaningful way. He did a great job picking out the defensive coaching staff with Ryan Nielsen and Jerry Gray, and it’s not like we haven’t seen his scheme work before. However, you can justify making full-sweep changes, too.

The future is very uncertain for the Falcons, but one thing is certain. Until this team learns to consistently close out games, it won’t really matter who coaches this team or who is under center. It’ll be the same old song and dance.

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