For the second straight week, Steven Jackson and the Atlanta Falcons mounted a strong second half comeback against a storied franchise that was also fighting for playoff position. For the second time in six days, that comeback came up just short.
After falling behind the Pittsburgh Steelers 13-0 early and 20-7 at halftime, the Atlanta Falcons twice pulled within a score of Pittsburgh late in Sunday's game, but couldn't come up with the plays they needed to knot the game and instead fell 27-20.
The loss was a big blow to Atlanta's playoff hopes as both teams that the Falcons have been jockeying with for the NFC South title — the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints — won in Week 15 to pull ahead of Atlanta in the standings.
Despite that, the Falcons still hold their fate in their hands with games against both those teams ahead of them in Week 16 and 17. As long as the Falcons win both games, they will rise up back to the top of the NFC South. However, a loss in either game means almost certain elimination for Atlanta. That means the team no longer has any margin for error entering a Week 16 battle with New Orleans.
"The playoffs start for us right away," Steven said after Sunday's loss. "We're coming in Monday, correcting the things we didn't do well in the game and getting ready for the New Orleans Saints. It's going to be a tough one on the road, but we'll be ready for it."
No. 39 finished Sunday's game with just 11 carries for 46 yards and one catch for an 11-yard gain. The 11 carries were SJ's fewest since an Oct. 19 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in which he toted the ball just eight times. His lack of carries on Sunday was the direct result of Atlanta falling behind early in the game.
Pittsburgh began the contest with possession and immediately put the Falcons behind with a long drive that soaked up nearly all of the game's first six minutes and resulted in a 38-yard Shaun Suisham field goal.
SJ gained 22 of his 46 yards with four carries on the ensuing Atlanta drive. He got the call on Atlanta's first play from scrimmage and surged through a big hole on the right side of the line for a gain of eight. Later in the drive, he picked up 12 yards and a first down on a 2nd-and-1 run into Steelers territory. With that carry, Steven also passed John Riggins (11,352 yards) for 16th on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
However, the Falcons drive stalled on the next series, just shy of field goal range, forcing a punt. That was Atlanta's only drive of the first quarter.
Pittsburgh started with the ball at their own 8-yard-line and their ball control offense, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back LeVeon Bell, continued to dominate time of possession. Another methodical Pittsburgh drive ended in another Suisham field goal, on the final play from scrimmage of the quarter, to make it 6-0 Steelers.
The ensuing kickoff was the last play of the first and a great 43-yard return by Devin Hester set the Falcons up with the ball at their own 38 and a chance to take the lead.
As Atlanta broke the huddle to start the second quarter, they were looking to be aggressive. But so too were the Steelers as they sent a blitz Ryan's way. SJ39 helped to pick up the blitz with a great block on Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worllds, which gave Ryan time to set his feet and make the pass. But Steelers safety William Gay read the throw — intended for Harry Douglas over the middle — and jumped the route for an interception. Gay took off the other way and, due to some outstanding blocking and a crucial cutback, was able to take the pick 52 yards to the house for a touchdown as Pittsburgh jumped ahead 13-0.
"It was one of those plays where they played a funky coverage and the guy just jumped the route," Douglas said after the game.
It took the shellshocked Falcons club some time to find an answer for the gut punch they had taken from the Steelers. SJ kicked off the ensuing drive with a two-yard rush, but then Atlanta took to the air and the drive eventually stalled short of midfield. However, the Falcons defense came up with its first complete stop of the day on the next Steelers drive, forcing a three-and-out that quickly put the ball back in the hands of the offense.
After taking over possession with 9:48 left in the second quarter, the Falcons' offense began moving the ball and started by feeding SJ39.
On 1st-and-10, from the 15, S-Jax rushed for two yards to the right. Then on second down, SJ was targeted by Ryan on a screen play and his 11-yard catch and run gave the Falcons a new set of downs. After establishing the short game, things began to open up for Atlanta down the field and Ryan found receivers for huge chunks of yards.
"We didn't start fast on offense," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We were hit and miss throughout the day, and we were not making the plays early in the game. We were off a little bit, and then we came back and moved the football. Consistency continues to be something that we have to be better at."
The third play of the drive saw the quarterback connect with Roddy White for a 24-yard gain into Pittsburgh territory, and two plays later he hit Harry Douglas for a big first down. The Falcons got some help two plays after that when Worllds struck Ryan to the head on a sack, a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty that put Atlanta on the doorstep of the red zone. After two Devonta Freeman runs got the Falcons to Pittsburgh 17, Ryan was in shotgun on 3rd-and-6 and found Devin Hester for a 17-yard touchdown pass to get Atlanta on the board and back in the game, down just 13-7.
However the one score deficit was short lived. On the subsequent Steelers possession, Roethlisberger engineered a 12-play, 80-yard drive during which he connected with five different receivers. Big Ben was 7-of-9 on the drive for 76 yards, including a big 28-yard pass to Antonio Brown that was originally ruled incomplete, but was then overturned by replay review. That play set the Steelers up at the goal line with 31 seconds left in the half and Bell finished the drive with a touchdown plunge to put Pittsburgh back in front by two scores, 20-7, at halftime.
"We didn't really get started the way we wanted to," Ryan said. "We had an opportunity early on and just missed on a couple. We continued to battle back. I think offensively it comes down to a couple things, you can't turn the football over and when you have opportunities in the red zone, you've got to put it in the end zone. We didn't do a good enough job of that today."
Atlanta started the second half with the ball and the knowledge that they needed to strike if they were to have any hope of competing. Ryan, who finished with 310 passing yards despite the absence of his top target Julio Jones (hip injury), came out of the locker room firing.
The first play of the drive was a quick screen to Hester off a play action fake to SJ39. The play worked to perfection as, after catching the ball at the line of scrimmage, Hester took it 46 yards to the Pittsburgh 34. On the next play, Ryan completed his ninth consecutive pass as he hit Harry Douglas for a gain of 16 to put the Falcons in the red zone.
However the next play pushed Atlanta back out of the red zone, as they were whistled for holding on a run by No. 39. Ryan completed three straight passes out of the 1st-and-20 from the 28, but the Falcons came up short of the first down and settled for a 28-yard Matt Bryant field goal to make it 20-10.
Another big three-and-out by the Atlanta defense on the first Steelers drive of the second half gave the Falcons a chance to pull even closer, and the subsequent drive got off to a great start. SJ39 kicked it off with a three-yard gain off the right side. Two plays later Ryan connected with Douglas for a gain of 19 to move the chains on third down. Douglas was crucial to Atlanta's hopes as he filled in admirably for Jones with 10 catches for 131 yards.
Following the big third down conversion, the Falcons went back to Steven and he moved the chains yet again thanks to a great cutback in the backfield that allowed him to find a hole in the line and scamper across midfield for a gain of 12 yards to the Pittsburgh 45.
After SJ's first down run, Ryan took the Falcons offense into no-huddle mode and they started eating up chunks of yardage at a time. After a short pass to White gained six yards, Ryan scrambled for 12 and a first down. Then on the next play, he hit Hester for a gain of eight to get Atlanta into the red zone.
A third down completion to White put them at the 11 and when Ryan found Hester for a nine-yard gain to the 2 on the next play, the Falcons seemed primed to put six on the board. But the Steelers stuffed SJ39 for a loss of two yards on second down and Ryan's fade to Devin Hester on third down fell incomplete, forcing the Falcons to settle for another field goal.
"We felt like we had lots of chances to have a different outcome," Smith said. "We have to take advantage of the opportunities that we have in all three phases. I think that we normally have been a very good team in the red zone, and we were not able to convert and score touchdowns there."
The field goal did pull the Falcons back within a single score of the Steelers, but again Pittsburgh responded quickly to doubt being cast upon their lead. Roethlisberger engineered a six-play, 80-yard drive that carried into the fourth quarter and featured gains of 15, 26 and 30 yards through the air. Then, on the second play of the fourth quarter, Bell carried around the left end, turned the corner and cruised into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown to make it 27-13.
The Falcons offense did respond with a 10-play, 84-yard scoring drive of their own, which featured a nice mix of Atlanta's ground and aerial attack. SJ was stuffed for no gain on his first carry of the drive, but the use of the run set up a big play from Douglas on the very next play. The Falcons again used the quick screen, as Ryan passed to Douglas who caught the ball near the line of scrimmage, turned up field and took off. Douglas made it all the way to the Pittsburgh 11, where he was forced out of bounds after a 41-yard gain.
Atlanta went back to the air on the next play, but a quick slant for Roddy White was broken up. On second down, the Falcons went to the ground and SJ picked up seven yards off right tackle to the four-yard-line.
That set up a crucial 3rd-and-3 from the 4-yard-line and Atlanta converted when Ryan found White in the back of the end zone for a touchdown to make it 27-20 with 10:21 to play.
The Falcons defense then got a huge stop on the ensuing Steelers drive, allowing just one first down and Pittsburgh punted away with 6:23 to go. But the Atlanta offense failed to move the chains on the subsequent possession. Ryan overthrew Douglas on the first play of the drive, then went back to him on a second down slant, but the receiver was tackled immediately by Gay for a gain of just four yards. On third down, Douglas ran uncovered over the middle but by the time Ryan got to him in his progression, linebacker Vince Williams had sniffed out the play and wrapped up Douglas two yards short of the marker.
Faced with 4th-and-2 from their own 25 with just under five minutes to play, the Falcons elected to punt and hope their defense could get a stop to give the offense one more chance. But they were unable to do so.
Pittsburgh picked up three first downs, including two big third down conversions, forced the Falcons to use all of their timeouts and ran out the clock on Atlanta.
With two games remaining in the 2014 season, the Falcons (5-9) still control their own fate, but their room for error has become nil.
They begin their slate of must-win games with a Week 16 trip to New Orleans to take on the Saints (6-8) on Sunday in a NFC South showdown with huge implications.
New Orleans enters the game leading the division after a 31-15 beatdown of the Bears on Monday night in Chicago. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns in the win. It was just Brees' seventh 300-yard passing game of the season.
The first of those came in Week 1, when the Saints and Falcons last met. Brees completed 29-of-42 for 333 yards, but was outplayed by Ryan, who completed 31-of-43 attempts for a career-high 448 and three scores in the 37-34 Atlanta win. For his part, SJ carried 12 times for 52 yards in the season starting victory. But the Falcons know the result of that game, like the other 13 they've played since, means nothing heading into Sunday's battle on the road.
"We can't worry about anything other than this week. Sometimes that is playoff-type mentality," Ryan said. "We know what's in front of us. We know what we've got to do. We've got to win next week. We've got to have the best week of practice that we've had this year, prepare as best we can, and cut loose when we get down to New Orleans."
Kickoff from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is set for a 1 p.m. ET and the game will be broadcast on FOX.
- Postgame press pass: Still In Control (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 14, 2014)
- Game Notebook: Falcons vs. Steelers (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 14, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Conferences (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 14, 2014)
- What they said: Falcons vs. Steelers (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 14, 2014)
- Falcons vs. Steelers Recap: Atlanta Falls Short at Home (The Falcoholic, Dec. 14, 2014)