Houston Texans' Connor Barwin (98) hits Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the third quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011, at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/The Brazosport Facts, Ryan Evon)
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Mike Smith usually does a good job controlling his feelings.
The Atlanta Falcons coach couldn't contain himself Monday after perhaps the most disappointing loss of a season that's threatening to come up far short of expectations..
"I'm disappointed. I'm mad," Smith said. "We pride ourselves on being a smart football team. We've not played smart, we've not played consistent. We're not as focused as we need to be, either. I think that shows. During different parts of the football game, we're hitting on all cylinders. Other times, we're not. That's something we've got to get fixed as a team. We're going to do this thing together."
What made this defeat especially galling was it seemed a perfect chance for the Falcons (7-5) to take control of their playoff fate. They were facing a Houston team down to its third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates, a team that already lost its best defender for the season, then its top receiver during the game.
But an ugly 17-10 loss -- which ended with Julio Jones letting a potential tying touchdown pass get knocked from his hands -- left Atlanta tied with Detroit and Chicago for the two wild-card spots, with the New York Giants lurking only a game behind.
Atlanta's hopes of repeating as NFC South champion are definitely fading. New Orleans knocked off the Lions to build a two-game lead on the Falcons with only a month to go.
From all indications, the wild-card race will go right down to the wire, especially since the Falcons have shown little ability to put teams away -- even while winning five of their last seven games.
"I guess we're going to make things hard on ourselves," receiver Roddy White said, managing a slight smile. "We're going to test our character. I think that might be a good thing. We seem to respond better with our backs against the wall. We'll see."
The Falcons made enough mistakes against the Texans to fill up an all-day film session. Jones, the first-round pick, had another rough day holding on to the ball. Matt Ryan threw two interceptions. A defense that knew Houston would have to run with Yates making his first career start surrendered 111 yards to Arian Foster.
More frustrating were all the mental blunders.
An interception returned for a touchdown by Mike Peterson was wiped out when both Dunta Robinson and Sean Weatherspoon were flagged for holding. James Sanders picked up a fumble and went 90 yards to the end zone, but the play didn't count as players from both teams charged onto the field, believing it was an incomplete pass.
"Sanders runs back a touchdown," White moaned, "and we've got like 80 people on the field."
On a crucial fourth-and-1 late in the game, the Falcons were called for delay of game. Ryan was charged with the penalty, but Smith put the blame on himself.
"That's unacceptable," the coach said. "We have a structure in terms of the clock running down, but we didn't execute it. I take full responsibility for that. It's nobody's fault but my own."
Atlanta takes on Cam Newton and the Panthers (4-8) at Carolina on Sunday. There's little room for error, a striking change from a year ago when the Falcons cruised to the division title with an NFC-leading 13-3 mark.
"Last year seemed like a breeze," White said. "Everything went right. Now, it seems like we can't get any breaks."
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Falcons still believe they can kick their season into another gear. They point to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season, the defending Super Bowl champions.
"Look at Green Bay at this time last year," Peterson said. "Who would've picked them? But they got hot and went on to win the whole thing. We know it can be done."
The Packers won their final two games in 2010 to sneak into the playoffs -- and haven't lost since. They ripped off four straight postseason wins, including a rout of the Falcons in Atlanta. They've started this season 12-0, which makes a return trip to the Super Bowl seem like a certainty.
Sorry, rest of the NFC.
Atlanta was considered a leading Super Bowl contender coming into this season, especially after giving up a hefty package of picks to land Jones with the No. 6 pick in the draft. He was supposed to be the missing link in an offense that already included six Pro Bowlers, but the Falcons looked downright inept against Houston.
The schedule still looks favorable, with the Carolina game followed by contests against Jacksonville (3-8 going into a Monday night game) and Tampa Bay (4-8). The toughest challenge left is a trip to New Orleans (9-3) for a rematch against the Saints, who beat Atlanta in overtime in their first meeting.
"This is the hand we've been dealt," Peterson said. "We've made our bed; now we've got to go lie in it."
Peterson and the other vets plan to take it upon themselves to remind the younger players that there's no use worrying about what the other playoff contenders are doing. Just focus on your own business and see what happens.
Meanwhile, Smith plans to continue as though it's business as usual. The mistakes will be addressed, for sure. But he plans no drastic change in the routine.
"The response is no different than any other week," he said. "Our guys understand how we do our business, how we operate. There's no reason to change how the team's going to prepare. It's very important that we remain steady and even-keeled in our approach. We have a plan. We plan our work, then we go work our plan."