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Running out of options
By not using their best weapon, the Falcons may pass by the playoffs
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Altanta Falcons fans Pete Watt and his son AJ., 10, left, sit and watch the closing minutes of Atlanta's 10-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Sunday. The Falcons fell to 7-8, but are still alive to make the NFC playoffs. - photo by Associated Press
    ATLANTA — So much for leading the NFL in rushing the last three years.
    Even coach Jim Mora acknowledged Sunday that the Atlanta Falcons’ offense has ‘‘some inconsistencies’’ and lacks ‘‘sync.’’
    Given how sensitively Mora once reacted to questions about poor pass protection, dropped balls and abundant sacks, he has seemed more willing, at least during the last several weeks, to distance himself from the mess.
    ‘‘Statistically, where we rank in the top 10, there’s that feeling (of inconsistency),’’ Mora said after a 10-3 loss to Carolina. ‘‘I’m not going to argue with you. There’s that fear that we’re not typically synced out. That’s something that you constantly work on.’’
    Despite sporting the league’s top ground attack since Mora, coordinator Greg Knapp and line coach-turned-consultant Alex Gibbs arrived in 2004, the Falcons are dangerously close to missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
    Michael Vick broke the single-season record for rushing by a quarterback last week and on Sunday became the first player at his position to break the 1,000-yard barrier.
    Running back Warrick Dunn, a 10th-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl pick, run just nine times for 29 yards in the Falcons’ fourth straight home defeat. The only other occasion that he ran for 29 or less in the last two years was in a 44-11 loss to Carolina at the Georgia Dome.
    Fullback Justin Griffith, who’s considered a solid blocker, hasn’t missed a game since the end of 2004.
    The team has three former first-round draft picks — Michael Jenkins, Roddy White and Ashley Lelie — at receiver. Tight end Alge Crumpler was named last week to his fourth straight Pro Bowl.
    ‘‘Like I said, man, this team has to keep fighting and has to keep pushing, but we’ve got to figure out what’s going on, and I’m tired of going through it on a week to week basis,’’ Vick said. ‘‘You know, guys questioning themselves and what we need to do. It needs to get done, and how we’re supposed to, you know, coaches have to be coaches and players have to be players. That’s the way it is.’’
    Blaming Knapp is the local rage, a trend that started in the final two months of 2005, when the Falcons went 2-6. With the same record in November and December this season, criticism of Knapp quickly resumed.
    Knapp and receivers coach George Stewart might seem the two assistants most likely to leave, but the entire staff, including Mora, could wind up unemployed if the team finishes 7-9.
    As much as Knapp’s questionable play-calling seems to frustrate players like Vick, the coordinator is compromised by the small line Gibbs demands to run his beloved zone-blocking schemes.
    The formula works if the Falcons take an early lead, but the team is 0-15 under Mora when Atlanta trails entering the fourth quarter.
    Vick, meanwhile, has lost the edge he had from 2002-04, when he seemed capable of nearly taking over games at will. He finished 9-for-20 against Carolina for 109 yards, two interceptions and a 22.7 passer rating that’s the third-worst of his career.
    Entering Week 16, Vick had a fourth-quarter rating (59.4 percent) that ranked 34th in a 32-team league. His receivers were 31st in yards after the catch and 13th in drops.
    Not that the defense and special teams don’t deserve blame. In the home loss to Carolina, the defense allowed a 16-play, 73-yard opening touchdown drive that consumed 10:36.
    Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke, a full-time backup since Jake Delhomme took charge of the Carolina offense in 2003, ended a 0-17 starting streak that began in Week 2 of 2001.
    Though it was just one play, Michael Jenkins’ illegal block above the waist wiped out Allen Rossum’s potentially game-tying 80-yard touchdown return with 8:51 remaining.
    ‘‘On all cylinders, we didn’t make the plays we needed to make,’’ Vick said, ‘‘and we didn’t win the game.’’