Smith and Ridder feel the heat as Falcons' season teeters on the brink after a dismal loss


ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are teetering on the brink after one of the worst losses in franchise history, an inexplicable setback that raised questions about the fates of coach Arthur Smith and quarterback Desmond Ridder.

As his third season winds down with the playoffs looking increasingly out of reach, Smith is under intense heat from a disgruntled fan base that is clamoring for a change. Social media was flooded with "#FireArthurSmith" posts, which were sure to get the attention of owner Arthur Blank.

Then there’s Ridder, the second-year signal-caller entrusted by Smith to lead the Falcons back to the postseason. Another boneheaded turnover in a year filled with them led to a dismal 9-7 loss to a Carolina Panthers team that came into Sunday with the NFL's worst record (1-12) and an interim coach.

“The job is to win games and get into the playoffs,” said Smith, whose overall record as the Falcons coach dropped to 20-28. “Definitely a tough pill to swallow.”

Having already benched Ridder earlier in the season, Smith indicated that he might make another switch at quarterback, though backup Taylor Heinicke offers little hope of a dramatic turnaround.

Heinicke made two starts, both losses, before Ridder reclaimed the No. 1 job.

With the Falcons clinging to a 7-6 lead against the Panthers, Ridder led a drive to the Carolina 18 — in position for a clinching touchdown or, at the very least, a field goal that would've forced the home team to score a touchdown.

On second-and-10, Ridder rolled to his left with his eyes on the end zone. He could've gone to Drake London, who appeared to get separation around the 5. Or he could've run the ball. Or he could've just thrown it away.

Instead, Ridder tried to force a pass to — well, it was hard to tell exactly who he was throwing to amid all the Carolina defenders — but it wound up being a perfect strike to safety Xavier Woods. After his interception, the Panthers drove 85 yards in 17 plays to win the game with a chip-shot field goal as time expired.

Nine days ago, the Falcons (6-8) were alone atop the woeful NFC South. But last-minutes losses to division rivals Tampa Bay and now the Panthers have left them in a desperate situation with three games remaining. The Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints both won Sunday to improve to 7-7.

Atlanta likely needs to win out to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2017, which was also the last time the Falcons had a winning season. Three straight victories is a lot to ask from an inconsistent squad that has yet to win more than two in a row during Smith's tenure.

“I know it’s not over with,” the coach insisted. “We still have a fight in it.”

But his words seemed hollow.