The Washington Post's Keith McMillan and Scott Allen discuss the Redskins' Week 5 loss to the Falcons (Thomas Johnson and Randolph Smith/The Washington Post)

Faced with the opportunity to capture a victory with an authoritative game-clinching drive for the second time in as many weeks, the Washington Redskins fell short Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

On Sunday, the Redskins needed either a finisher to step up or a collective effort that would enable them to win ugly. When it mattered most, they got neither and lost, 25-19, when Robert Alford intercepted a Kirk Cousins pass in overtime and returned the ball 59 yards for a touchdown.

Washington fell to 2-3. Atlanta improved to 5-0 after displaying the same grit that good teams sometimes need to overcome uncharacteristically poor performances and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s the same grit that the Redskins are trying to develop. Jay Gruden’s bunch appears to be building something here. In past years, they would have followed up an encouraging win like last week’s against the Philadelphia Eagles with a dismal performance on the road against a good team. But the Redskins instead pushed Atlanta to the brink. They just haven’t figured out a way to close in consistent fashion.

The anti-Kirk brigade will heap the bulk of the post-defeat criticism on the shoulders of the quarterback, who recorded the ninth multi-interception game of his 19-game career . But Cousins was not completely at fault for either of the interceptions and was hardly the only reason Washington blew its golden opportunity.

Cousins was indeed off in his accuracy; passes flew errant all day. Some were behind intended targets, such as the second-quarter throw to Pierre Garcon, who tried to contort his body as he slid and reached back for the ball and in so doing tipped it into Alford’s hands. Others sailed too high to open receivers .

Cousins’s game-sealing interception came as the Falcons brought heat from the left and into the face of the quarterback, who appeared either to miss his mark or have a miscommunication with Ryan Grant. The wide receiver broke inside, pivoted outside toward the throw and fell down trying to change directions. Alford caught the pass along the sideline and raced to pay dirt.

Cousins had given his team chances, shining the brightest in the final 24 seconds of regulation when he completed three passes for 46 yards to set up Dustin Hopkins for the game-tying 52-yard field goal.

But Washington’s biggest problems stemmed from the absence of two of its top game-changers on offense, a suddenly anemic rushing attack, ongoing third-quarter ineptitude an inability to turn the defense’s three takeaways into touchdowns and an inability to stop the Falcons’ running game.

The defense managed to overcome the absences of starting cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Chris Culliver. Bashaud Breeland and Will Blackmon, nickelback Kyshoen Jarrett and safeties Dashon Goldson and Trenton Robinson kept Julio Jones and the rest of Matt Ryan’s pass catchers out of the end zone.

The defense sacked Ryan three times, hit him two more times and intercepted him twice.

Falcons running back Devonta Freeman crosses the goal line with Redskins inside linebacker Will Compton hanging on. Freeman had a final-minute touchdown overturned by replay, but scored again. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The second interception, by Breeland, came with six minutes left on the clock and Washington leading 13-12. The cornerback returned the ball to the Atlanta 21, gift-wrapping a slam-the-door opportunity for the offense. But Washington settled for a field goal that gave it a 16-12 lead.

While the defense managed to compensate for the absence of its starters, the offense couldn’t do the same thing. With Jordan Reed (the big-target, chain-moving tight end) out with a concussion and DeSean Jackson (the speedy home run threat receiver) still recovering from a strained hamstring, Washington couldn’t seal the deal.

A second-quarter touchdown to Reed’s replacement, Derek Carrier, and strong defense made a 7-3 halftime lead possible. But Washington proved incapable of scoring in the third quarter for the fourth time this season. (The Redskins have a whopping three third-quarter points all season). So instead of capitalizing on Atlanta’s offensive struggles and two missed field goals by Matt Bryant, Washington enabled the host team to hang around.

Rookie slot receiver Jamison Crowder had eight catches on eight targets for 87 yards. But the Falcons swarmed him on the bubble screen pass on third and goal from the 6 four plays after Breeland’s interception. Cousins wasn’t in sync with Garcon like he was last week, when the two carried the team downfield and scored the game-winning touchdown against a struggling Eagles team. Reed’s big frame and wide catch radius would have helped in that goal-line situation.

Because of the defensive effort, winning without Reed and Jackson might have been possible had Washington has success with its bread and butter. But the Falcons rendered the rushing attack ineffective. Alfred Morris, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson together mustered only 50 yards on 22 carries after pacing an offense that in the first three weeks of the season averaged an NFL-best 139.5 rushing yards a game.

Success in the running game has enabled the Redskins to dominate the clock. They led the league in time of possession before Sunday as well. But with the Falcons taking away lanes and stringing backs out, the Redskins couldn’t sustain drives.

The defense refused to use this as an excuse, but in previous weeks, the unit’s players credited the offense for dominating the clock and keeping them fresh, which in turn enabled them to get off the field promptly.

On Sunday, however, the defense appeared to wear down under the heavy snap count and surrendered 176 rushing yards; the unit hadn’t allowed 100 in a game all season. The defenders couldn’t contain Devonta Freeman on a six-yard touchdown run that gave Atlanta a 19-16 lead with 24 seconds left. But otherwise, the unit did its job.

Cousins & Co. did force overtime, and they started moving the ball after winning the toss and taking the opening kick of the extra period. But the game should never have come down to that.