FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the NFL meets during the offseason to ponder rule changes, the Atlanta Falcons might have a radical suggestion.
Could the game be shortened to two quarters?
Five times, the Falcons have strutted to the locker room with a halftime lead. Five times, they've straggled off the field at the end of the game with a loss.
"I can't figure it out," linebacker Keith Brooking said Monday. "We get on top of teams but, for some reason, we can't keep them down."
After twice squandering leads of 17 points, the Falcons reached a new low in Sunday's 38-31 loss to Tennessee.
Atlanta bolted to 21-0 lead in the first quarter, was still up 21-14 at halftime, then totally fell apart in the second half against a Titans team that didn't have starting quarterback Steve McNair.
Led by backup Billy Volek and taking advantage of several glaring mistakes, Tennessee (9-2) put together a 38-3 run before the Falcons scored a late touchdown.
Atlanta (2-9) is tied with San Diego and Jacksonville for the worst record in the league and looks increasingly like a team devoid of hope - except for the very real chance of landing the No. 1 pick in 2004 draft.
"I'm past the point of being frustrated," Brooking said.
Coach Dan Reeves, whose career in Atlanta appears to winding down, said his team's psyche is so fragile that it can't handle anything going wrong. As soon as the other team rallies, the collective response appears to be, "Here we go again."
"I think it's the adversity," Reeves said. "They have to handle that better. When things do happen, you can't let that affect you. You have to play them one at a time and try to get the momentum back on your side."
The coaching has to be considered, too. There's little doubt that opposing teams are making better adjustments than the Falcons, who have been outscored 97-26 after leading games at halftime.
Some other post-halftime numbers from those games are just as ugly. Like 2-for-28 in converting third downs to first downs. And 36.8, the average yards rushing. And 246.8, the average yards allowed by the defense.
Reeves blames the lack of success on third down for many of the team's problems. It does have an impact on both sides of the line, giving the offense more chances and keeping the defense off the field a little longer.
"We're doing a lot of things offensively well," Reeves said. "If we could just convert the third downs and give ourselves more opportunities. That's the thing that's really plaguing us."
The special teams had to take a big chunk of the blame for Sunday's loss, even though Allen Rossum returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown.
Travis Jervey fumbled a kickoff in the second quarter, setting up a Titans' touchdown and changing the mood of the game.
"Football is all about momentum, and that was definitely a momentum change," defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "But you know the momentum is going to change two or three times during a game, and you've got to take it back. We've not been able to do that."
In the second half, Tennessee went ahead for good when Justin McCareins scored on a 58-yard punt return. Finally, Rossum ruined Atlanta's final offensive possession when he inexplicably fielded a punt at the Falcons 5 and was tackled at the 2, leaving 98 yards to go for the potential tying touchdown.
As if the Falcons needed any more bad news, Warrick Dunn was hobbling around on crutches Monday, a protective boot covering his sprained left foot.
Dunn underwent an MRI on Monday and will undergo additional tests Tuesday. Reeves is worried that his team's leading rusher could be out for the season.
Rookie safety Bryan Scott will definitely miss some playing time after hurting a knee. He'll undergo arthroscopic surgery.
Completing the theme, a bunch of players were wearing surgical masks in the locker room, hoping to avoid a strain of flu that already struck several teammates. Defensive tackle Ed Jasper was too sick to play Sunday, and several starters were weakened by the illness.
Brooking shrugged it off.
"I'm not going to use that as an excuse," he said. "We definitely lacked some depth on the defensive line, but we haven't been a second-half team all year."
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