The Atlanta Falcons 2014 season has been one of what-ifs thus far, most of those centering on Mike Smith's costly late-game decision-making. While this hasn't exactly gone the way we dreamt it would, though, the Falcons just whipped the team with the best record in the NFL and held on to the NFC South lead. I'll take that victory.
This was a winnable game, as I'd argued, but I expected it to be tight. Instead, the Falcons became only the second team to hang 20-plus points on the vaunted Cardinals defense, rolling to a relatively easy but never comfortable 29-10 win. The Cardinals offense is in shambles, but the Falcons played one of their best games of the year en route to a three score victory, one I think we all needed to see if we were going to buy into the faintest possibility of this team remaining in the playoff hunt. With their fifth win, they're now past 2013's win total, at the very least.
I'll say this, if nothing else: Seeing the Falcons execute a balanced offensive game plan and take advantage of the Cardinals' glaring weaknesses made me feel good. It was the kind of game the Falcons used to win, one where they didn't so much overwhelm teams with their talent and firepower as play smart, disciplined football and make the Cardinals pay for their mistakes.
Considering the Saints just beat the Steelers, that win was huge for a team that is still, 13 weeks into the season, leading the division. Next week's game against the Packers likely is going to be a loss for the Falcons, but they're not dead in the water just yet, considering they still have a reeling Steelers team at the Dome and the Saints and Panthers on deck. Hope is a dangerous asset at the moment, so I'd just let this roller coaster take us where it will.
Let's review some of the best and worst performances from the game.
- When Ryan threw a pick-six early, it looked like he would scuffle yet again against the rough and tumble Cardinals defense. Instead, he rallied after that shaky start to put up an efficient, potent game against a daunting unit, completing 30/41 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. Ryan will need to be at the top of his game in Green Bay, so hopefully this was a promising portent.
- Steven Jackson had easily his best run in a Falcons jersey yesterday, a 55 yard rumble that carried him all the way to the one-yard line on the first drive of the game. The Falcons were able to punch it in on fourth down after that, giving them an early lead. He wasn't hugely very effective the rest of the way, but had a few more nice runs en route to his first 100 yard game in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, Jackson was ineffective in short yardage, which was a problem on a pair of second half third down situations. The Falcons desperately need a back who can pick up a yard when called upon. Still, given the outcome and Jackson's 100 yards, it's a nice game for him.
- Devonta Freeman was the most effective back on the field outside of Jackson's huge run. He put up 29 yards on six carries and should round into a larger role in the coming weeks as the Falcons cling to this division lead.
- Julio Jones wasn't perfect—he and Ryan have a few communication issues to work out, as we'll talk about later—but he dominated Patrick Peterson through most of the game. At halftime, he had eight catches for 132 yards and a touchdown. He finished with 10 receptions for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown, and if he can keep that production going in the weeks ahead, the Falcons should do well.
- Give Harry Douglas credit for his 100 yard game, where he routinely got open against a quality Cardinals secondary. Give him more credit for recovering the last ditch onside kick that could have theoretically kept Arizona in the game. Give him even more credit for stepping up in a big way with Roddy White out of the game.
- The offensive line held the Cardinals pass rush in check, which is remarkable when you consider Arizona just sacked Russell Wilson seven times a week ago. One of the most impressive efforts of the season thus far for this young, unsettled line, which is doing good work with two rookies and a second-year UDFA.
- Cliff Matthews has bounced between the inactives list and extremely limited snaps this season, and while he didn't fill up the stat sheet, he was effective up front as he took on snaps in place of Paul Soliai. He, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux ensured Stanton never had a ton of time, and they did a good job of bottling up an admittedly anemic Cardinals ground game.
- The Falcons have, per Daniel Levak with the mothership, piled up 11 interceptions in the last six weeks. The defense still isn't great or even necessarily good on a drive-by-drive basis, but the turnovers make all the difference, and they certainly mask some of the Falcons' other issues. Dwight Lowery was the latest recipient, thanks to Drew Stanton's largesse.
- William Moore made an immediate impact upon his return. Moore forced a fumble in the second quarter which Desmond Trufant subsequently recovered. It's good to have a guy who is always looking for the turnover in the secondary, and he had a fine first game back after eight weeks away.
- Matt Ryan just can't shake the interception bug that ails him every year against the Cardinals. His pick-six right to Rashad Johnson was clearly caused by communication issues with Julio Jones (not sure entirely which one to blame there, but Jones wound up behind Johnson and not ready for the ball), but it took a 17-0 lead and cut it to 17-7. He's had some issues staring down and forcing to receivers in recent weeks, and if the Falcons want to keep a hold on the division for much longer, he'll have to be considerably better.
- Robert McClain doesn't look like the same player he was in 2012, as he struggled with penalties and ineffectiveness against the Cardinals. The sooner Robert Alford comes back, the better.
- Devin Hester should have had a touchdown, but had his return wiped out by a facemask penalty. The problem? Arizona's punter also had a facemask on the play, one I'd argue was more egregious.
- Not ugly, per se, but Dirk Koetter lunging in to "help" Mike Smith decline the holding penalty on Matt Bryant's field goal made me chuckle.
- Mike Smith's clock management remains atrocious, though thankfully it wasn't costly. The Falcons had 2:42 on the clock, let it wind down to the two minute warning and wound up settling for a field goal heading into the second half, in part because they ran out of time. It was mostly a well-coached game, but Smith needs a pocket watch.
Game MVP: Matt Ryan. He badly needed a redemptive game against Arizona, and outside of that ugly pick six, he rolled. Julio Jones' ongoing abuse of Patrick Peterson and Matt Bryant's platinum leg
Theme Song: Gotta.
One Takeaway: The Falcons passing game is still eminently capable of being frightening. We just have to hope this wasn't lightning in a bottle.
Next Week: Lambeau in the frozen north to play the Green Bay Packers. Visit our good friends at Acme Packing Company for more.
Final Word: Bigwin.