Falcons might rue loss to Commanders at season's end

Daron Payne's left hand ruined the day for Marcus Mariota and the Falcons. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

LANDOVER, Md. -- It was the look the Atlanta Falcons wanted. Running back Cordarrelle Patterson was open in the end zone to potentially take the lead Sunday afternoon, with less than a minute to play.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota let the pass go and then the exact opposite of what the Falcons planned for took place. Defensive lineman Daron Payne’s left hand tipped what might have been a touchdown pass into the air. Cornerback Kendall Fuller came diving in, picking it off in front of Patterson.

While one play never truly determines an NFL game, Washington’s 19-13 win over Atlanta hinged at least partially on that one.

“We had a wide open look that we liked,” coach Arthur Smith said. “They made a play.”

When the regular season concludes six weeks from now, it might feel like one of the opportunities missed out on most if Atlanta ends up out of the postseason.

Had Atlanta won Sunday, it would have once again been .500 and held tiebreakers for wild cards over three teams -- Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. Atlanta would have had a half-game lead in the NFC South.

Instead, Atlanta is a half-game back of Tampa Bay (5-6), which lost to Cleveland in overtime. Those seemingly fleeting wild-card chances took a hit too as the Falcons, at 5-7, are now two wins back of the No. 7 Commanders at 7-5.

Sure, a lot can happen. But this one will sting.

“You can’t lie and say that it’s not a missed opportunity, because it is,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “But at the end of the day we still have life. We still have stuff ahead of us to be able to strive for.”

It came on a day where Washington and Atlanta played so similarly. Both focused on the ground and Washington outrushed Atlanta, 176-167, although the Falcons had a better yards per carry average (5.8 to 4.8). The quarterbacks -- Mariota and Taylor Heinicke -- had similar numbers. The teams had similar total yardage (Atlanta 332 yards, Washington 314) and similar third-down percentage (41.7% for Washington, 40% for Atlanta).

Neither pressured the quarterback much. Both had an interception and three passes defended. It was close to an equal game. Until the end, where the Commanders made one more play.

On the play, Patterson was open when Mariota started his throwing motion. Payne was engaged with right guard Chris Lindstrom, not appearing to have a shot at batting down the ball. Mariota threw it. As he did, Payne disengaged his left arm, raised it up and knocked the ball in the air.

“Sometimes you can kind of feel defenders in your face,” Mariota said. “But it’s hard to say you’re kind of thinking about that in that moment.”

It was just Mariota's second red zone interception of his career.

It’s possible it feels like this could be one of those big missed opportunities for the Falcons only in the moment because there have been a few this season – a 16-point blown lead in Week 1 against New Orleans, a comeback falling short in Week 2 against the Rams, the roughing-the-passer that wasn’t called against Tampa in Week 5 and the back-and-forth end in Week 9 against the Chargers.

That’s the thing. Atlanta has hung around in almost every game this season. The Falcons have been competitive in a year when most thought they wouldn’t be. And they still have a chance at the postseason, partially because of the poor play of the NFC South.

Which is why Sunday might burn a little more because against another team fighting for a wild-card berth, it could really end up costing them. Or not. We just won’t know for about another month.

“In no way are we out of this thing,” offensive lineman Jake Matthews said. “All I can say is, being this fresh off of it, frustrating. Absolutely expected to punch that in at the end and win it.

“And unfortunately it didn’t happen.”