By Cedric Williams

Back on October 11, when the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Washington Redskins to push their record to 5-0, it seemed like a sure thing that the Falcons were headed to the NFC playoffs.

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Since then, Atlanta has lost six of seven games, including Sunday’s road contest at Tampa Bay. And now the Falcons find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs with a 6-6 record and a five-game losing streak that seems to have no end in sight, especially with Atlanta scheduled to play two of its next three games against the league’s only remaining undefeated team, the now 12-0 Carolina Panthers.

On the bright side, the Falcons played perhaps their best game since that day they beat the Redskins back in October. The offense moved the ball fairly consistently, the defense did a nice job containing Tampa’s top 10-ranked offense, and the guys on special teams were very good — especially fill-in kicker Shayne Graham, who went four-for-four on field goal attempts to help Atlanta build a 12-7 lead early in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, none of that was good enough to net the Falcons anything better than barely passing grades for their performance in yet another tough to swallow loss this season.

Offense: C+

Tampa’s young defense came into Sunday’s action ranked 12th-best in the NFL in total yards allowed. But the Falcons moved the ball pretty well against the Buccaneers, gaining 319 total yards, with most of that coming through the air.

Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 30-of-45 passes for 269 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown to receiver Nick Williams that gave the Falcons a 19-16 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Falcon run game was only moderately successful, with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combining to gain just 60 yards on 17 carries against a Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked among the top 5 in the league against the run.

The real problem for the offense on Sunday was too often having to settle for field goals. A few more touchdowns would’ve been so nice, especially since the game came down to another bad Ryan interception — the former Pro Bowler’s ninth INT in his last six games.

“It’s obviously a disappointing loss. We had opportunities, I thought, throughout the game to score more points,” Ryan said following the game. “We didn’t come away with enough touchdowns. At the end of the game, obviously, you don’t want to turn it over on the first play of the drive. That was disappointing as well.”

Defense: C-

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Like the offense, the Atlanta defense played good enough to win on Sunday. The Falcons held the Bucs to just seven points in the first half; they forced two key turnovers that both led to points for the offense, and they managed to contain Tampa’s impressive rookie quarterback Jameis Winston for most of the day.

But the Falcons couldn’t contain Winston late in the game when he led the Bucs on a 12-play, 80-yard drive to put his team in the lead for good. Winston was also responsible for what was probably the key play in the game when he somehow converted a 3rd-and-19 into a first down by scrambling for 20 yards even though it seemed like the Falcons had him cornered after he had gained only 10.

That play was typical of Atlanta’s main failure on defense on Sunday — bad tackling. At least four Falcons had a shot at bringing Winston down on a play that would’ve forced Tampa to try a game-tying field goal. Instead, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick found a way to keep his team alive, before putting the Bucs ahead with a scrambling touchdown pass four plays later.

Special Teams: A

Atlanta’s specialists were terrific all day on Sunday. Punter Matt Bosher averaged 48.3 yards on four punts, including another booming 60-plus yarder that helped the Falcons get out of one particularly bad field position situation.

The return of Devin Hester at least provided some energy to the kick return game, even if the NFL’s all-time leader in combined return touchdowns didn’t get many chances on Sunday. And Graham was probably Atlanta’s No. 1 star of the game, after banging home all four field goal tries he had on Sunday.

Coaching: C+

The game plan seemed sound, the team seemed ready to play all day, and the execution was pretty good for most of the day. The only thing keeping the coaching staff from earning higher marks is possibly just the fact that the Falcons lost again.

At some point, this coaching staff and these players are going to have to figure out how to win a game again. The season is not over. Even at 6-6 (after beginning 5-0 and 6-1), the Falcons can still salvage their season and even earn a playoff spot, but that turnaround is going to have to begin soon. It’s mostly likely going to have to begin with next week’s battle against unbeaten Carolina, who clinched their third straight NFC South Division title thanks to its victory over New Orleans and Atlanta’s loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday.

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Cedric Williams, a lifelong St. Louisan and proud UMSL alum, has been a full-time reporter/photographer covering St. Louis area sports for nearly two decades. Most recently, he has been working as a credentialed beat writer covering the NFL, as well as college and high school sports for the St. Louis American, Patch.com, and other outlets from around the area. Please share any comments, questions, or feedback with Cedric at cedricwilliams510@gmail.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.