ATLANTA — Talk about a painful reality check.
After reaching .500 eight games into the 2021 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons have been held without a touchdown in consecutive lopsided losses to the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots.
A 27-25 road win against the New Orleans Saints in NFC South Division play on Nov. 7 left the Falcons at 4-4 and hoping they might contend for a playoff berth. Thursday night's 25-0 loss to the AFC's Patriots left the Falcons (4-6) painfully aware of their shortcomings.
Atlanta's first shutout loss in six years was all the more painful coming after Sunday's ugly 43-3 road setback to Dallas.
It is the first time the franchise has been held without a touchdown in back-to-back games since 1987, when a team that wound up going 3-12 lost 38-0 to the Saints and 38-3 to the Cleveland Browns at midseason.
"It's about as rough as you can feel after the emotions of getting back to 4-4," first-year Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Friday, "and then really what I'd say is we deserve to be where we're at."
The latest loss highlighted the offense's lack of depth.
With No. 1 wide receiver Calvin Ridley missing his fourth consecutive game, versatile running back Cordarrelle Patterson held out with an ankle injury and tight end Hayden Hurst going on injured reserve for the same reason, the Falcons were left with far too little firepower to keep pace with the Patriots.
Ridley is eligible to come off the nonfootball injury reserve list, but it's not known if he will return this season as he has the support of the team while addressing mental health issues. Smith said Friday he had no update on Ridley's status.
Smith said Patterson, who worked out on the field before Thursday night's game after being limited in practice this week, wanted to play. Barring a setback, Patterson could return next week as the Falcons prepare for their Nov. 26 visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7), who first face the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.
"That's the journey of the season," Smith said of his team's next road trip.
They obviously missed Patterson's production Thursday. He has 39 catches for 473 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns, and he leads the team with 303 yards on the ground, where he has scored twice.
Without him, the Falcons were held to 11 first downs and 165 yards by the Patriots, whose defensive prowess has them on a five-game winning streak.
Atlanta's defense played better than the final score indicated, though it was by no means a dominant performance. New England led only 13-0 entering the fourth quarter, but backup quarterback Josh Rosen had an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Kyle Van Noy late in the game.
The Falcons, who allowed 308 yards, were led on defense by linebacker Faye Oluokun, who had 10 tackles and one of the team's three sacks. A.J. Terrell added nine tackles and an interception at cornerback, and Dante Fowler Jr. shared a sack and had five stops.
Patriots rookie Mac Jones completed 22 of 26 passes, and running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson each averaged more than 5 yards per carry. Still, Smith said the defense "gave us a chance, and we didn't take advantage of it."
Atlanta's offense had a glaring lack of punch, with no play gaining at least 20 yards. Too often the Falcons were forced into predictable passing situations caused by an ineffective running game and penalties.
Russell Gage was Matt Ryan's most effective target, leading the team with five catches for 49 yards, and his 19-yarder in the fourth quarter was the Falcons' biggest play of the game.
Gage is best in a complementary role, perhaps as a No. 3 target. Once Patterson was ruled out, the Patriots' defense focused on rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who was held to three catches for 29 yards. The Falcons couldn't produce enough big plays from other players to avoid their first shutout loss since a 38-0 setback to the host Carolina Panthers on Dec. 13, 2015.
Perhaps the only somewhat upbeat review from Smith about an offensive player regarded running back Qadree Ollison, who was called up from the practice squad for the game and had a long run of 12 yards while leading the team with nine carries for 34 yards. Those are modest figures, but starter Mike Davis netted only 1 yard on three carries, so Ollison could have a role even if Patterson returns.
Smith said Ollison "ran well and had his moments. That was good to see."
The former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator emphasized the offensive line didn't deserve all the blame for the shutout, but that group struggled to create running lanes and to protect Ryan. Atlanta was held to 40 rushing yards on 16 carries, while Ryan was sacked four times for a loss of 33 yards.
Smith said "everything is on the table," but it's not clear what options, if any, are available on the roster.
Ryan limped off the field with a toe injury in the first half but kept playing until the game was out of reach in the final quarter. He downplayed the injury after the game, and Smith also expressed optimism Friday in the veteran quarterback's status but added "we'll have to see how the next four or five days progress."