Familiar path: Falcons struggling – again – after big season

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) A three-game losing streak is bad enough for a team coming off a Super Bowl.

Considering the Atlanta Falcons’ up-and-mostly-down history, it should be even more of a concern.

Five decades after entering the NFL, the Falcons still seem befuddled by the challenge of following up their best seasons – granted, a rather small sample – with any kind of sustained success.

”Everybody’s good in this league,” running back Devonta Freeman said Wednesday. ”You can’t ever stay OK. You’ve always got to work to be great. You’re either going to be great or you’re going to be sorry. There ain’t no in the middle.”

After a 3-0 start, the Falcons suddenly bear no resemblance to the team that reached the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history last season.

Especially on offense .

With largely the same group that easily led the NFL in scoring in 2016, Atlanta has managed only one touchdown in the last six quarters – a meaningless one in the waning minutes of Sunday night’s ugly 23-7 loss to the New England Patriots , the same team that rallied from a 25-point deficit in the second half to beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

Coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator for back-to-back Super Bowl teams in Seattle, so he knows a thing or two about the stringing together successful seasons.

He called a team meeting after the Patriots game to air any grievances and try to sort out what’s gone wrong before they play at the New York Jets on Sunday.

”You just worry about the fight that you’re in,” Quinn said. ”When you try to look too far down the line or look too far back … those are the times that come back to punch you right squarely in the face.”

Coming off an MVP season, struggling quarterback Matt Ryan is intent on following Quinn’s advice.

”We’re not playing good enough as a unit in 2017,” he said. ”Frankly, I don’t really care to go back to 2016. It’s not useful for us.”

At the risk of offending Ryan, here’s a quick recap of the Falcons’ best teams – and what happened the next season:

1980-81 – The Falcons claimed their first division title in 1980 with a dynamic offensive team. Then, at home in the playoffs, they squandered a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys. The next season, Atlanta got off to a 3-0 start before losing three in a row. They wound up finishing 7-9 despite ranking second in the league in scoring, losing seven games by five points or less.

1998-99 – The ”Dirty Birds” went 14-2 and reached the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, rallying for a memorable overtime victory at Minnesota in the NFC championship game. Things went downhill after they arrived in Miami. Team leader Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the title game, and then got beat for a long touchdown as Denver romped to an easy victory in John Elway’s final game. The next season, star running back Jamal Anderson tore up a knee in Week 2 and the Falcons plummeted to 5-11.

2004-05 – Led by dynamic quarterback Michael Vick and rookie coach Jim Mora, the Falcons won another division crown and reached the NFC championship game before the season ended with a loss at top-seeded Philadelphia. Atlanta seemed on its way to a repeat the next season, starting out 6-2, only to collapse over the second half. An overtime loss at Tampa Bay on the next-to-last week eliminated the Falcons from playoff contention, and a 44-11 home blowout to Carolina capped an 8-8 season. Mora lasted only one more season, and it wasn’t much long before Vick was busted for dogfighting.

2010-11 – Mike Smith, the only Falcons coach with consecutive winning seasons, guided the Falcons to a 13-3 record and the NFC’s top seed. They lasted just one game in the playoffs, routed at home by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers 48-21. Atlanta never really got going the next year, though a 10-6 mark was good enough for a wild card. The Falcons dropped a huge egg in the playoffs, losing 24-2 to the New York Giants.

2012-13 – Atlanta finished 13-3 to claim its second division title in three years and the conference’s top seed, setting up what was the first NFC title game at home in franchise history. The Falcons bolted to a 17-0 lead, but Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers rallied for a 28-24 victory, stopping Atlanta’s final drive at the 10-yard line. That would be the last gasp of Smith’s tenure and the most successful run in Atlanta history; the team plummeted to 4-12 the next year, and Smith was fired after another losing mark in 2014.

2016-17 – Stay tuned.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

For more AP NFL coverage: www.Hometeaminsider.com and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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