- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: The loss dropped the Falcons to 2-5, and any optimism about making the playoffs has all but evaporated. It’s hard to imagine the short-handed Falcons finishing even above .500 with two games left against the improved Carolina Panthers, one more matchup with the NFC South-leading Saints and contests remaining against Seattle, Green Bay and San Francisco. At least the Falcons still have the winless Buccaneers on the schedule once more.
Stock watch: The offensive line, as a whole, continues to fail. The guys up front couldn’t protect Matt Ryan and couldn’t open up holes in the running game. Not to mention guard Justin Blalock and tackle Jeremy Trueblood picked up penalties on a third-quarter drive when the Falcons really needed to gather some momentum. There was a chance the return of Sam Baker could have given the Falcons a little bit of a boost along the line, but Baker did not suit up after being questionable coming off a knee injury. It looks like the Falcons’ line could use an extreme makeover, but there won’t be any quick fixes. There is no choice but to wait until next season.
Matty Ice-Cold: The aforementioned line problems certainly contributed to Ryan’s miserable day. The reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week threw four second-half interceptions, his first multi-interception day since he threw five against the Cardinals last November. The Falcons put themselves in way too many third-and-long situations, which forced Ryan -- who attempted a career-high 61 passes -- to try to make superhero-like deep throws to dig his team out of trouble. Ryan figured it would be much tougher against the Cardinals than it was against the Buccaneers last week. He never imagined it being this bad.
Running on empty: Steven Jackson, out since Week 2 with a hamstring injury, wanted to bring balance back to the offense through the running game. Instead, Jackson was pretty much nonexistent other than a nice blitz pickup early in the game. The key was for Jackson to establish a rhythm early. Instead, he rushed for 5 yards on five first-half carries. No one should have expected Jackson to come in and rush for 100 yards after sitting out four games. But the Falcons needed much more production from the veteran back regardless of his health status. He finished with 6 yards on 11 carries, with a long run of 4 yards. Ryan actually had the longest run of the day with 13-yard pickup.
Defensive implosion: The Falcons' defense felt good after blitzing the pants of the Buccaneers last week. Not so fast. Mike Nolan’s crew stumbled once again, giving up an 80-yard touchdown run to unheralded Cardinals running back Andre Ellington, who rushed for more than 100 yards. The Falcons also surrendered a 51-yard touchdown pass play from Carson Palmer to receiver Teddy Williams. The Falcons have made average players look great while surrendering 11 plays of 40-plus yards this season. Maybe Nolan will go back up into the booth after this miserable showing, though the pass rush showed improvement in the second half.
What’s next: The Falcons have their second consecutive road trip, with a matchup against Cam Newton and the Panthers next Sunday. Newton recently said his team "absolutely" can win the NFC South. The Falcons are struggling and have had problems against Newton in the past. In other words, this could be another long day for the Falcons. Atlanta has won five of the past six against Carolina.