Like many of their games this season, the Atlanta Falcons got off to a promising start in Sunday afternoon's matchup with the Detroit Lions at Wembley Stadium in London, England.
The Falcons used a balanced offense and stout play from their defense to build a quick 14-0 lead. Then, Atlanta made a little history when on a five-yard run to the goal line, Steven Jackson became just the 19th running back in NFL history to reach 11,000 career rushing yards. Two plays later, SJ39 hurdled into the end zone to give the Birds a 21-0 lead just before halftime.
It appeared in that moment that Steven and his teammates were well on their way to celebrating a much-needed victory and a momentous achievement in the career of No. 39. However, the Detroit Lions were bent on spoiling the party.
In the second half, Detroit capitalized on various Atlanta miscues and made some outstanding plays of their own to chip away at the Falcons lead, then sunk the Falcons 22-21 on a last-second field goal. Afterward, SJax—who finished with 60 yards on 18 carries—lamented the loss and Atlanta's continued inability to put tough games away and finish off wins.
"What's frustrating is that the guys go out every week and they give their all, practice really efficient, show up to work with a purpose and for whatever reason on Sunday, we're not putting four quarters of good football together," he said.
Though he noted frustration with the lack of answers as to why the Falcons have not been able to execute in those situations, he remained steadfast in his belief in the work he and his teammates put in.
"It's not the lack of effort; it's not the lack of care," he said. "This team, this locker room, they go out each and every Sunday expecting to win and that's what you want to see. I can't answer why things don't work out the way it should, but as one of the leaders in the locker room, I can tell you guys are working hard."
That hard work showed on the field early Sunday, as the Atlanta offense put together three long scoring drives to take a huge halftime lead.
On their first drive of the day, the Falcons used a balanced attack to mount a 10-play, 80-yard drive. SJ received his first opportunity of the game on the second play for scrimmage and made the most of it with a seven-yard run to the right side. His number was called again as Atlanta closed in on midfield and his-back-to-back runs totaled eight yards pushing the Falcons across the 50. After No. 39 helped power the team into Lions territory, he got a breather and Atlanta turned to rookie Devonta Freeman, who caught a swing pass from quarterback Matt Ryan and took it seven yards to pay dirt, which gave ATL an early 7-0 lead.
Following a defensive stop and a solid punt return from Devin Hester, the Falcons offense went right back to work.
SJ39 led the way with a pair of solid first-down carries, and Ryan hooked up with Julio Jones and Harry Douglas for chain-moving receptions. Then the Falcons got a little help from the Lions, as a pass interference call gave them the ball 1st-and-goal at the one-yard line. From there, Ryan used play action with Steven as a decoy to set up a pass to tight end Bear Pascoe in the back of end zone to put Atlanta out in front 14-0.
After another stop by the Falcons defense, the offense went three-and-out for the first time on the opening drive of the second quarter. However the defense held strong and forced another punt that gave Atlanta another opportunity another chance to establish control of the contest.
The ensuing Falcons drive began at their own 11 and with SJax as a decoy and help from two huge Detroit penalties, Ryan and the passing game drove Atlanta into the red zone, where No. 39 took over. On 1st-and-10 from the 17, SJ gained eight yards on a bruising run off left tackle to the nine-yard-line. On the next play, he picked up the first down by pounding the rock up the middle to the six.
Then, on 1st-and-goal from the six, the Atlanta offensive line paved another lane and Steven plowed through it for five yards, running through two Detroit defenders before being stopped by one at the goal line. SJ reached over the goal line with the ball as he fell backwards but was ruled to be down before the ball broke the plane. Though the run was just short of a touchdown, on it, SJ eclipsed 11,000 career rushing yards, making him the 19th running back in NFL history to do so.
One play later, Atlanta went back to their big back, and SJ39 walked into the end zone for six to give his squad a three-touchdown lead.
The Lions attempted to answer SJ's score at the end of the half and drove deep into ATL territory, but corner Robert Alford halted that advance, intercepting Matt Stafford to signal the end of a fantastic half for the Falcons and the fans representing them in the UK. After the game, SJ applauded the fans for their activity during the game.
"The UK crowd is very knowledgeable of the game," Steven said of the atmosphere at Wembley Stadium. "They were into it. You can tell, over the years, from 2007 to now, they understand third down, punts and when to make noise for the home team. So, the knowledge base of the UK has grown tremendously and I think that happens, because now you have more and more teams coming and showing the game and playing it the right way, where you have the stars playing and the interest in the game is there for four quarters."
However, as great as the first half was for the Falcons and their fans in the UK and at home, the second half was the quite the opposite.
Detroit opened the second half with a 15-play, 76-yard drive that ended in a short Matt Prater field goal to get Detroit on the board. After a three-and-out by the Atlanta offense, the Lions went right back to work, but it appeared the Falcons defense would send them back to the sidelines in short order when Detroit faced a 3rd-and-25 in their own territory. However, Lions receiver Golden Tate got behind the Atlanta defense and Stafford found him for a 59-yard touchdown to make it 21-10
The Falcons offense was suddenly faced with the challenge of quelling Detroit's momentum, which led to another huge play in the game. On 1st-and-10 for Atlanta near midfield the Lions got serious pressure in Ryan's face, flushing him out of the pocket. As he scrambled for options, Ryan through across his body where he though he had Julio Jones. However, waiting on the other side of the field was not Jones but Lions cornerback Cassius Vaughn, who intercepted the pass and took it all the way back to the Atlanta seven-yard line.
The Falcons answered with an impressive goal line stand, which forced another short field goal from Prater. But less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the momentum had swung and Atlanta's lead was down from 21 to a tenuous 8.
The lead got even smaller on Detroit's next drive, a 13-play, 69-yard trip. Following another three and out from the Falcons offense, the Lions took over at their own 31, but crossed midfield in just four plays against a gassed Atlanta defense. Once across the 50, the Lions were able to continue moving the ball by keeping up two key third downs. The second of those got Detroit into the red zone and three plays later Stafford found Theo Riddick in the end zone for six, putting the Lions a two-point conversion away from the tie.
The Atlanta D came through with another key stop on the conversion attempt as tight coverage forced a pass from Stafford to Tate to fall incomplete.
The Falcons took over with 3:56 remaining and a two-point lead, with a chance to put the game on ice. They started to do that behind No. 39, who rumbled for seven yards on the first play of the drive to kill some clock. SJ was stopped for a two-yard loss on the next play, which was followed by a Detroit timeout ahead of a 3rd-and-5. But the Falcons converted on a 13-yard pass from Ryan to Harry Douglas, and the fresh set of downs allowed them to kill more clock.
Steven was stopped for no gain on the next play, which was followed by another timeout. Ryan again answered with a pass, connecting with Julio Jones for 22 yards into Detroit territory, taking the game to the two-minute warning. After a one-yard gain by Devonta Freeman, the Lions used their final timeout. SJ got the next carry with a chance to wind the clock down to about 1:15 no matter what he did, but on his run up the middle, the Falcons were called for holding which stopped the clock. It also forced the Falcons to throw on 3rd-and-9 and Jones dropped a screen pass, which also stopped the clock.
A Matt Bosher punt pinned the Lions on their own seven-yard line, but the 1:38 remaining on the clock was the the Falcons' detriment and allowed Stafford to guide his team into field goal range. Prater lined up for the game-winning kick from 43 yards out with four seconds left and booted it wide right, appearing to give the Falcons the win.
However, the play clock had expired before the kick and a delay of game penalty moved the Lions back five yards, but since it was a dead ball penalty, there was no 10-second runoff, which gave Prater another chance. On try No. 2 from 48 yards away, Prater snuck his kick inside the left upright and stole the victory out of Atlanta's hands as time expired.
"This is probably as tough a loss to take as any I've been a part of," Ryan said. "I really feel like we had a lot of different chances to win that ball game and consistently didn't make plays when we needed to."
The loss dropped the Falcons to 2-6 for the season, but because the NFC South leading Carolina Panthers also lost on Sunday, dropping them to 3-4-1 on the season, the division remains wide open. Atlanta will head into their bye week with that knowledge, but they're also aware that no team has made the playoffs after a 2-6 start.
"We've got to be the first one to do it. I think that's got to be the mindset that we have to have," Ryan said. "We've got to find a way to get better over the course of the bye week and I think everybody needs to look in the mirror and self‑critique and really ‑‑ when we get back to work, have a great mindset and a great sense of focus."
Atlanta's bye week comes at the exact halfway point of their season, allowing the Falcons a chance to clear their heads and get refocused for the second half of the regular season.
When they come off the bye week, Atlanta will be traveling down to Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers.
The trip to Tampa is coming at the right time for the Falcons, whose last win was a 56-14 drubbing of the Bucs at the Georgia Dome in Week 3. SJax tallied 54 rushing yards and a touchdown in that victory.
The Falcons will look to replicate that performance at 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Nov. 9. The game will be broadcast on FOX.
- Steven Jackson reaches 11K career rushing yards (ESPN, Oct. 26, 2014)
- JACKSON TOPS 11,000 CAREER RUSHING YARDS (AtlantaFalcons.com, Oct. 26, 2014)
- Game Notebook: Falcons vs. Lions (AtlantaFalcons.com, Oct. 26, 2014)
- Steven Jackson reaches 11,000 Career Rushing Yards (Bleacher Report, Oct. 26, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Conferences (AtlantaFalcons.com, Oct. 26, 2014)
- Falcons React to Week 8 Loss to Lions (AtlantaFalcons.com, Oct. 26, 2014)