Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Green Bay Packers' Charlie Peprah (26) tackles Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White (84) during Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome.
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Atlanta coach Mike Smith painstakingly went over every possession the Falcons had in their latest loss, pointing out each little mistake, each little miscue.
They sure added up quickly.
If things don't turn around soon, the Falcons might just dig a hole they can't escape.
Atlanta (2-3) is already being lumped with Philadelphia and the New York Jets, two other teams that came into the season with soaring expectations but have been major disappointments. The latest loss was a 25-14 setback to Super Bowl champion Green Bay, which exposed just how large the gap is between a legitimate title contender and a Falcons team that has taken a big step backward since last season.
Already, they have lost as many regular-season games as all of 2010 heading into Sunday's contest against Carolina.
Now, it's time for some serious self-reflection.
"You have to take a good hard look at yourself," Smith said Monday on a gray, rainy afternoon that matched the mood at the Falcons' suburban training complex. "It starts with me, it starts with the coaches, it starts with the players. We can only fix this working together. It's not going to be just one person. We've got to make sure we find ways to win football games instead of finding ways not to win football games."
Atlanta got off to a blistering start against Green Bay, scoring on its first two possessions for a quick 14-0 lead.
After that, the Falcons looked like an entirely different team, managing just 106 yards on their final eight possessions.
Smith went over all of them:
A holding penalty on Tyson Clabo ruined a 47-yard play, leading to Atlanta's first punt.
Clabo was penalized again early in the second half for sticking his hands in a rusher's face, knocking the Falcons out of field goal range.
An illegal formation penalty wiped out a 15-yard pass, and Atlanta had to punt again.
A 21-yard pass that would've kept another possession going was overturned after Packer coach Mike McCarthy challenged the call. The replay showed Harry Douglas didn't have possession before he tumbled out of bounds.
Finally, with the Falcons again in position to at least try a field goal, Matt Ryan was sacked for an 11-yard loss, then threw a high pass that went off Tony Gonzalez's hands and was intercepted.
As for the other three times Atlanta had the ball, one ended with Ryan taking a knee at the end of the first half, another resulted in Ryan's second interception when the Falcons were in desperation mode at the end. There was, in Smith's assessment, only one "true three-and-out."
"After the first two drives," Smith said, "we basically had situations where we self-destructed."
What made it even tougher to take was the way Atlanta looked in the beginning. Those first two possessions were things of beauty, showing off all the weapons the Falcons figured to unleash this season after adding first-round pick Julio Jones to an offense that already included Pro Bowlers Ryan, Gonzalez, Roddy White and Michael Turner.
"The first two drives were very good drives," Smith said. "That makes the rest of it look and feel really bad."
Indeed, once the mistakes started adding up, the Falcons looked all out of sorts. The bruising Turner is expected to set the pace on the ground, but he failed to reach 100 yards for the third game in a row.
Ryan has already thrown 196 passes (39.2 a game), which is tied for second-most in the league -- only Drew Brees of pass-happy New Orleans has more -- and appears far out of Matty Ice's comfort zone.
"We wanted to run the ball and control the clock," Smith said. "That's part of our DNA. But the way the game unfolded, we were not able to sustain drives. We've got to be able to sustain drives if we want to continue to run the football."
The defense did a much better job than it did in last year's playoffs, when the Falcons were blown out at home by the Packers, 48-21. Atlanta sacked Aaron Rodgers four times, limited Green Bay to four field goals and didn't give up a touchdown until late in the third quarter.
Still, Rodgers threw for 396 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown to James Jones that put the Packers ahead to stay. Rodgers also threw a 29-yard scoring pass to Greg Jennings and converted twice on third down to extend a drive that led to a clinching field goal.
This is certainly not how the Falcons envisioned the season starting out, coming off a 13-3 record and the NFC South championship. They already trail New Orleans (4-1) by two games in the division race, and it's getting to the point where they can't get much farther behind.
"We're not where we want to be," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "But we're still optimistic about what we can be."