ATLANTA -- Even with a new head coach, the Atlanta Falcons can’t manage to escape heartbreaking losses.
Head coach Raheem Morris falls to 1-1 as the interim leader of the Falcons after a 23-22 defeat at the hand of the Detroit Lions, a team they had a six-point lead on entering the final moments of the game.
Morris is auditioning to become the Falcons' (or another team’s) permanent head coach after this season, and it showed on Sunday. He didn’t let his foot off the gas, dialing up aggressive blitzes in the second half to stifle Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and calling Atlanta’s first successful two-point conversion of the season.
The Falcons would have had a 99.0% chance to win had Todd Gurley gone down at the 1-yard line, per ESPN's win probability model. By scoring, he dropped Atlanta's chance to win to 97.5%. But the way the Falcons mismanaged the fourth quarter led to their demise and sixth loss of the season.
He wasn't supposed to score: The Falcons and Lions went back and forth in a tight game, and at no point did Atlanta ever lead by more than a touchdown. Matt Ryan and the offense strung together two long touchdown drives in the first half, each which took 5:48 off the clock and helped the Falcons build an early lead, but did not have the fast, explosive carryover from their win over Minnesota in Week 6.
Atlanta took the field ahead of the two-minute warning trailing 16-14. The goal was to run out the clock with a run game that looked pitiful up to that point in spite of facing the NFL’s 29th-ranked rushing defense. Detroit used all three of its timeouts after every Atlanta gain inside the Lions' red zone on back-to-back-to-back plays. The objective for the Falcons was to keep moving towards the goal line but never cross it to keep wearing the clock down and eventually kick a field goal to win.
Instead, Gurley ran 10 yards for a touchdown to give the Falcons a 22-16 lead. As he was struggling to break a tackle, Gurley tried to stop himself from scoring to run the clock out and fell right at the goal line. He was ruled to have broken the plane.
With 1:12 remaining after Atlanta converted a successful two-point attempt, Stafford orchestrated his 38th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or over time after hitting T.J. Hockenson for an 11-yard touchdown. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Danny Amendola moved back the extra-point attempt to 48 yards, which kicker Matt Prater sailed in with ease to give the Lions a one-point victory with zero seconds remaining.
The Falcons had opportunities to win in the fourth quarter and walk away with their second straight dub under Morris. Instead, another game slipped away from Atlanta’s grips.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, here's what the Falcons' win probability looked like on several plays at the end of the Lions game:
83% with 1:12 remaining (3rd-and-1 at the DET 10)
94% after Todd Gurley scored a TD on that play
97% after Matthew Stafford spiked the ball with 0:34 to play
78% entering the final play of the game
Too aggressive?: No one has gone for it more on fourth down this season than the Falcons, who entered Week 7 with 14 attempts, though their 57% conversion rate ranked 20th in the NFL. And if you’re Morris, with a team that had one win and are in the midst of auditioning for a permanent head coaching gig, why wouldn’t you be aggressive? It helped spark Atlanta’s first scoring drive when a busted coverage allowed Hayden Hurst to pick up 8 yards on fourth-and-1 from midfield. But when Morris chose to go for it on fourth-and-5 with 12:01 to play in the game instead of kicking field goal to take a four-point lead (17-14), his decision backfired when Ryan failed to connect with Ito Smith inside the red zone. ESPN's win probability model didn’t like Morris' decision, either. It gave the Falcons a 67.4% chance to win by going for it, but it would have given them a 71.7% chance with a field goal attempt.