ATLANTA (AP) — The season began with such promise for the Atlanta Falcons.
Now, it’s in danger of falling apart.
The Falcons blew another close game Sunday, surrendering a pair of two-touchdown cushions before losing 24-21 to Indianapolis. Adam Vinatieri gave the Colts their first lead of the game on a 43-yard field goal with 52 seconds remaining.
The Colts rallied behind 40-year-old backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who filled in for injured starter Andrew Luck.
Atlanta (6-4) has lost four of five — including three in a row — after starting its first year under coach Dan Quinn with five straight victories.
“We haven’t finished a game in about a month,” receiver Roddy White said. “We’ve got to find a way to finish one of them.”
Indeed, the Falcons have lost their last three by a combined seven points, one in overtime.
“You always have to keep your foot on the accelerator,” said Matt Ryan, who threw for three touchdowns but also was picked off three times, including a desperation heave on the final play. “When we have a lead and an opportunity to close out a game, we’ve got to make plays that are going to get the job done.”
After losing star running back Devonta Freeman to a concussion early in the game, the Falcons still managed to build leads of 14-0 and 21-7. But the offense totally bogged down in the second half, turned it over four times, and failed to take advantage of three Indianapolis turnovers.
After Leonard Hankerson hauled in a 3-yard touchdown pass for Atlanta’s final score with 9 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, the Falcons managed just 67 yards with as many turnovers as first downs (three each).
The most crucial miscue came with just over 10 minutes remaining after the Colts downed a punt inside the 1. With the running game struggling, Ryan attempted a play-action pass over the middle. D’Qwell Jackson, after feigning that he was coming up to stuff the run, dropped back into coverage.
Ryan never saw him. Jackson picked off the pass at the 6 and brought it back for a pick-six that happened in the blink of an eye, tying the game at 21.
“It’s just a play I can’t make,” Ryan said.
With Luck helping out on the sideline, Hasselbeck overcame a couple of interceptions and calmly led the winning drive for the Colts (5-5), covering 56 yards in nine plays.
The biggest was a short pass that Frank Gore took to midfield for a 31-yard gain.
Then it was Vinatieri, the oldest player in the league at 42, winning it for the Colts, like he’s done so many times before in his brilliant career.
“I don’t ever think you get totally used to it,” he said. “But the excitement is always there.”
Playing in his 300th game, Vinatieri booted his 26th game-winning kick in either the final minute of regulation or overtime.
“The guy is wearing Depends and he’s just knocking down game-winners every week,” said Colts punter Pat McAfee, who is also Vinatieri’s holder. “It’s incredible to watch.”
Hasselbeck is 3-0 as a starter this season when Luck’s been hurt. The second-stringer was 23 of 32 for 213 yards, throwing a pair of touchdown passes to Ahmad Bradshaw.
“Matt, the old seasoned vet, is doing a fantastic job just winning games for us,” Vinatieri said. “I feel very fortunate to have him leading us while Andrew is out.”
Freeman went down after ripping off a 39-yard run deep into Colts territory. That cost Atlanta the league’s third-leading rusher, leaving rookies Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward to handle the backfield duties.
Coleman was held to 48 yards on 17 carries.
Freeman will go through the concussion protocol this week, his availability for next Sunday’s game against Minnesota likely to be an ongoing question mark.
“It’s tough,” Ryan said. “Devonta’s been such a big part of what we’ve done this season.”
Julio Jones had another huge game for the Falcons, hauling in nine passes for 160 yards. Fullback Patrick DiMarco, known mostly as a blocker, tripled his career touchdown output by hauling in a couple of scoring passes.
It wasn’t enough to prevent another galling defeat.
NOTES: A fourth-year player, DiMarco had only one other TD before Sunday: a scoring catch last season at Minnesota. … White, whose absence from the offense has become a major issue, was targeted a season-high nine times. Still, he had only four catches for 24 yards.