FLOWERY BRANCH — Finishing strong is the ultimate goal for any football player.
It shows you're better conditioned and mentally tougher than your opponent.
For the Falcons, it's been an elusive target.
Atlanta (2-4) is mired in a three-game losing largely because of its fourth-quarter woes, turning what could have been a promising start into a season on the brink.
Over the last four weeks, the Falcons have been outscored 49-0 in the final period and thoroughly dominated in essentially every statistical category.
"If you had to pick, you'd rather finish strong than start strong," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "We've just got to do a better job. That's all I can really say about it."
Indeed, this disturbing trend must change if the Falcons are to have any hope of salvaging the season. They're heading into their toughest stretch, beginning with Sunday's game at Baltimore (4-2), which is followed by a trip to London's Wembley Stadium to face Detroit, followed by two more road contests against NFC South foes Carolina and Tampa Bay.
"It's hard to put it on one thing," Peters said. "We've just got to work on finishing. We've got to finish better in practice — that's where it starts — and try to carry it over to the game."
There's nothing fluky about Atlanta's problems, that's for sure.
During this monthlong stretch, opponents hold a commanding 332-218 edge in total yards over the final 15 minutes — and the Falcons' totals are inflated by Matt Ryan's three completions for 41 yards in the final minute of a 41-28 loss to Minnesota, plus a meaningless 24-yard run by Devonta Freeman on the last play of a 30-20 defeat to the New York Giants.
Time of possession is also telling in these games. The Falcons have held the ball for just 21:25 in the final period, compared with 38:35 for the other teams. It's hard to score when the offense is spending much of its time watching from the sideline.
"We're not playing good enough," Ryan said Wednesday. "That's it. Plain and simple."
The offense has been far too one-dimensional in the fourth quarter, managing a total of 36 yards rushing. That has put undue pressure on Ryan and the passing game to carry the load, but the Falcons haven't come close to reaching the end zone. The deepest fourth-quarter drive was to Minnesota's 33-yard line — on the next-to-last play of a game that was already decided.
Ryan hurled up one last pass into the end zone, which was intercepted.
"In order to win games in this league, you've got finish games strong," he said. "We haven't done a good job of that."
With a puny running game, the offense keeps putting itself in a bind with short gains on first and second downs. When the Falcons get to third down, they often face a daunting predicament. Eight times, they needed at least 7 yards for the first down, a big reason they are just 2-for-12 on third-down conversions.
Amazingly, Atlanta has not converted on third down in the fourth quarter since Week 3 against Tampa Bay.
Ryan's struggles mirror the team as a whole. Over the last three games (he didn't play in the final quarter of a 56-14 victory over the Buccaneers), the quarterback has completed just 16 of 29 passes for 123 yards at closing time, with three interceptions. The line hasn't done a very good job protecting him, either, giving up five sacks.
The Atlanta defense, conversely, has struggled to get teams off the field. Opponents have converted nearly half (9 of 19) of their third-down situations, the Falcons often looking confused and disorganized as they attempt to handle coordinator Mike Nolan's complex schemes.
He may have to simplify things — then again, Nolan went to that style of defense because he knew he didn't have the talent to match up with most teams, especially along the front six.
Ryan and his star receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, look like the best hope of turning things around.
They've got to start producing some big plays.
"We've had opportunities to make plays. We just haven't made them," Ryan said. "We've got to remain confident in the belief that we're going to make those plays when they present themselves. You have to trust in what you believe in."
Notes: WR Harry Douglas again missed practice Wednesday because of a foot injury. He sat out the last three games after being injured against Tampa Bay. ... By losing 16 of 22 games over the last two season, the Falcons' franchise record has again dropped to 100 games under .500 (318-418-6).