View from Atlanta: Week 1 loss diminishes lofty goals

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Let's dispense with the boilerplate. No, it's no disgrace losing to the Steelers, and yes, it was the first game among many. That said ...

This was a bad loss. This was as bad a loss as a Super Bowl wannabe can suffer in Week 1 of any NFL season.

The Falcons didn't lose to the Steelers as we've come to know them; they lost to a team forced to deploy its third-string quarterback. This being the NFL, quarterback is supposed to be the position of decision. So how did Dennis Dixon's team beat Matt Ryan's?

The Falcons worked 621/2 minutes Sunday and didn't muster a touchdown. This after a preseason in which the first-team offense managed one touchdown in 13 possessions. This despite having a Pro Bowl tailback, a Pro Bowl receiver and a Pro Bowl tight end. Said Tony Gonzalez, the tight end: "It's kind of inexcusable. You feel like you should be able to score at least one touchdown."

Only once did the Falcons cross the Pittsburgh 20, and when they did their coach lost his nerve. Faced with fourth-and-1 at the 5 with 31/2 minutes left, Mike Smith chose to kick a tying field goal. Had the Falcons gone for it and scored the go-ahead touchdown, the game would have been won. Had they gone for it and failed, they'd have left the unsteady Dixon with plays to make. Smitty kicked to tie and lost in OT.

This after nearly losing in regulation. With 1:45 left in the fourth quarter, Ryan threw for Roddy White on the right sideline and got victimized by the great safety Troy Polamalu, which can happen. But when the Steelers' Jeff Reed pushed a 40-yard field goal wide right and the Falcons won the toss in overtime, the game was again inexplicably theirs to lose.

Whereupon they lost it. Ovie Mughelli was penalized for holding on the kickoff. Sam Baker was flagged on what would have been a third-down conversion. Michael Koenen hoisted an indifferent punt. And then the Falcons had what Smith called a "misfit" on the Steelers' only snap of overtime, enabling Rashard Mendenhall to burst over right tackle and keep going until he'd scored the strange game's first and last touchdown.

"Whether it's Big Ben [Roethlisberger] or Dennis Dixon starting, we felt like we should win the football game," said cornerback Dunta Robinson. "And we had every opportunity to do it."

That's why this loss hit so hard: The Falcons will never have a better chance to win in Pittsburgh than they did Sunday, and by winning in Pittsburgh they'd have gone a ways toward validating all the rosy forecasts that have been attached to this team. (One by this correspondent, it must be said.) Instead, they ran 71 plays, gained 295 yards. Michael Turner never got started. Ryan completed 27 of 44 passes to little avail.

What was missing? Said Roddy White, who caught 13 passes for 111 yards: "More big plays. More explosive plays. I don't think we had a gain of more than 20 yards."

Mike Mularkey is the Falcons' offensive coordinator. He was once the Steelers' offensive coordinator, and Sunday he seemed bent on beating the Steelers at their own grinding game. Which made no sense. If you have the better quarterback, why not put him to use? On those 71 snaps, the Falcons chucked the ball into the end zone once -- on a no-chance fade from Ryan to Brian Finneran from the Pittsburgh 21 midway through the third quarter.

Simply put, there's too much talent on this offense to keep settling for field goals. The past two seasons the Falcons had to try to score more points than their undermanned defense allowed. The defense is undermanned no more. It's the offense that seems substandard, and in a wretched Game 1 the "O" took a O-fer.



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