Red-zone woes move Falcons closer to another losing season

ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are leaning on the “crazier things have happened” justification for retaining playoff hopes following a loss at San Francisco that had the appearance of a postseason elimination game.

At 6-8, the Falcons still have a slim chance of making the playoffs. The emphasis is on slim. The Falcons dropped to 11th in the NFC, and they are still looking for their first true home win.

With only three games remaining in the regular season, including Sunday’s home game against Detroit, there’s no remaining room for error if the Falcons are to avoid their fourth consecutive losing season.

Before Sunday’s 31-13 loss at San Francisco, first-year coach Arthur Smith had the Falcons on the verge of reaching .500. Smith’s determination to develop a running game appeared to be paying off before repeated red-zone failures against the 49ers exposed old weaknesses.

Smith kept showing faith in his team by keeping the offense on the field on fourth downs. His reward was constant disappointment. The Falcons were stopped on three fourth-down plays inside the 10-yard line.

The inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities shows the Falcons were not prepared to take advantage of their chance to swap spots with the 49ers as the No. 6 team in the NFC playoff standings.

There had been progress, especially in the running game, in recent weeks. But the Falcons were unable to maintain momentum gained by their 29-21 win at Carolina on Dec. 12.

“Certainly we had felt the last couple weeks we had been playing better,” Smith said Monday. “I would argue Carolina has a pretty physical defense. I thought we went up there and played pretty well, especially up front. It was the polar opposite this week. … So we’ve made progress, but yesterday certainly wasn’t what we wanted.”

The loss to the 49ers left Atlanta 0-5 against teams with winning records.

The Falcons’ goal this week is winning their first true home game of the season. They beat the New York Jets in London on Oct. 10 when they were the designated home team but have not won a game in Atlanta.

The Falcons must win their last three games to have a winning record. They will cling to any playoff hope as long as possible.

“Usually, the last week of the season, you just want to have a mathematical chance,” Smith said. “Crazier things have happened.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The 49ers’ defense had three sacks and 10 quarterback pressures, but Matt Ryan still created explosive plays in the passing game. Kyle Pitts and Olamide Zaccheaus each had 49-yard catches and Russell Gage outfought Ambry Thomas for a 20-yard touchdown catch. Ryan completed 19 of 32 passes for 236 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offensive line remains a work in progress, but don’t overlook the defense when compiling a list of offseason projects.

Through Sunday’s games, only the Jets have allowed more points than the 384 given up by the Falcons. They have been outscored by 126 points, the biggest deficit in the NFC.

The Falcons, held without a sack against the 49ers, remain last in the league with 16.

STOCK UP

With eight catches for 91 yards, including the impressive 20-yarder for a touchdown, Gage is strengthening his credentials as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Gage had 11 catches for 130 yards in a 30-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 5.

STOCK DOWN

Cordarrelle Patterson gained only 18 yards on 11 carries while being utilized in a traditional running back role. Patterson has played a key role as a dual threat, but he was targeted on only two passes.

Patterson has been most effective when given more opportunities as a receiver. He was hit behind the line on seven of his 11 carries.

INJURED

Smith said the team is awaiting test results on WR Tajae Sharpe’s foot injury suffered in the second half. DT Marlon Davidson was held out with a non-COVID-19 illness which Smith said developed on Saturday.

KEY NUMBER

13 — The Falcons were kept out of the end zone on 13 plays from the 10-yard line or closer, including five from the 1.

NEXT STEPS

The Falcons play two of their last three regular-season games at home, including Sunday’s visit from Detroit.

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