'That's football': Atlanta Falcons push forward after loss

ATLANTA -- The game had been over for 20 minutes and Calais Campbell, still in full uniform, remained engaged in conversation with his defensive linemates -- sometimes going locker-to-locker to talk.

He could have waited until Monday, but this felt too important. He wanted to talk through what had just happened and what could still come.

At age 37, Campbell has seen almost everything there is in the NFL. So he understood what the Atlanta Falcons' 29-25 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday felt like and meant.

The Falcons were a half-minute away from being over the .500 mark and in control of the NFC South. Instead, Campbell was lamenting missed opportunities, acknowledging the Falcons were still in a three-way tie for first place with New Orleans and Tampa Bay with four games to go -- but with their future far less certain.

"Just connecting with the guys, talking through things and figuring out how we can move on," Campbell said. "And get where we want to try and go still."

Where Atlanta is trying to go -- for the first time since 2017 -- is the postseason.

Campbell and the rest of the Falcons know what was lost Sunday after a last-second heave from quarterback Desmond Ridder to receiver Drake London was stopped 3 yards short of the end zone, sealing a wild final quarter that featured a combined three touchdowns, a field goal and two lead changes.

How a Ridder 6-yard touchdown run to give Atlanta a 25-22 lead with 3:23 left turned into a loss after Tampa Bay tight end Cade Otton beat Richie Grant on a route in the end zone with 31 seconds remaining.

How two missed field goals from Younghoe Koo -- a 52-yarder and 50-yarder -- in the first half might have altered things. How a first-half safety and an interception by Tampa Bay cornerback Carlton Davis on the Atlanta 8-yard line (which set up the Buccaneers' first touchdown) were costly.

How Atlanta had seven straight offensive possessions from the middle of the second quarter to the start of the fourth went as follows: missed field goal, safety, missed field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt.

How their opportunity for breathing room is gone, compounded by close losses earlier this year to Tennessee, Washington, Arizona and Minnesota.

"Today, we let one slip away and that hurts because the margin for error is so much smaller now," Campbell said. "Because of the ones we let slip away earlier. But that's football."

Away from the defensive line corner of the locker room, the feeling was similar, understanding how close Atlanta (6-7) was to having a clearer path to the postseason. Had Atlanta won Sunday, it would have had a 76% chance of winning the NFC South, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Now, the Falcons have a 34% chance.

"We could have set ourselves up pretty, pretty well," London said. "And right now, we just have to go back into the lab and figure it out."

London did everything he could to put Atlanta in that position, with career highs of 10 catches and 172 yards (accounting for almost half of Ridder's career-best 347 yards passing).

Afterward, Falcons coach Arthur Smith tried to emphasize to his team -- and publicly in his postgame news conference -- that Atlanta is still alive. The Falcons remain firmly in the divisional race and are a likely wild-card contender, too. (Depending on what happens the rest of Week 14, Atlanta could be in up to a six-way tie for the final wild-card spots.)

"We know we're not out of it," fullback Keith Smith said. "Just got to control what we can moving forward.

"We just know that we're on thin ice. So we got to play our best ball moving forward."

There's a recognition of how much stronger the Falcons' position could have been had things gone a little bit differently Sunday.

Atlanta lost a chance to win three straight games in a season for the first time under Smith. To be over .500 this late in a season for the first time since 2017 and be in a position to win the NFC South for the first time since 2016, the year the Falcons reached the Super Bowl.

"Our spirit is not broken," Smith said. "We do have opportunities. This thing is going to [be], it'll be a wild adventure toward the end of the NFL season."