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Falcons 17 - Bengals 35 instant recap: Atlanta confronts its limits

Injuries deplete the secondary and the Falcons lose big on the road.

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

I was worried heading into this game that the Bengals passing attack would be too much for the Falcons to handle. When A.J. Terrell got hurt, that worry became a five alarm fire, one that had smoke pouring out of the walls.

Joe Burrow and the Bengals were absurdly effective against Atlanta, and that effectiveness was aided by injuries to Terrell and Mike Ford, stretching Atlanta’s cornerback depth to its absolute limit. They built up a huge lead, and despite the Falcons staging an admirable comeback at the end of the first half, they never relinquished it and wound up blowing out our favorite football team.

This was a reminder that Atlanta has limitations, something that was likely forgotten when the Falcons got rolling and ultimately beat the 49ers by 14 points. The Falcons can’t pass their way back into games and can’t count on an injured, unfinished secondary stopping quality passing attacks, and that will doom them at multiple points this season. This is still an unexpectedly good Falcons team—one that has shown us enough progress to think they could be special in 2023—but those limitations are not going to go away. The Bengals made that crystal clear.

Atlanta’s heart and drive kept them in a game that should’ve been an absolute bloodbath through the first half, however, as they closed the gap to 11 at halftime. That’s a testament to how hard this team can fight, but it’s also a statement as to how irrelevant heart and fight are when you’re simply outmatched. The Falcons put up zero points in the second half versus one touchdown for the Bengals, who finished the game with a long drive that ground the clock to dust. Cincinnati was simply the better team, and while the Falcons are both in the NFC South race and still a quality team, that level of domination still has to sting.

Here’s the drive-by-drive recap of the game you just watched.

1st Quarter

Cincinnati started with the ball from about their own 15 yard line. A Joe Burrow-to-Tyler Boyd connection got a quick first down, Joe Mixon picked up about five yards, and then Hayden Hurst had a grab for a first down. On the next play, blown coverage led to Tyler Boyd being wide open downfield and Burrow took full advantage, hitting him in stride for a 60 yard touchdown pass. 7-0 Bengals.

Mariota got things started with a four yard run after not finding anyone open, and then Tyler Allgeier picked up a first down with a nice physical run. Unfortunately, two short runs and a Mariota-to-Avery Williams misfire ended the drive from there. Punt.

A drop on first down was a cheerful note, but then Hurst picked up another first down and Mixon picked up five on first down for the Bengals. A little scramble and a short pass to Mixon turned into 22 yards for the Bengals, who got across midfield before Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase, who was working against Cornell Armstrong after A.J. Terrell got hurt. Then he found Boyd for a near-score. The Falcons got a couple of quick stops, but a stumbling Joe Mixon got into the end zone. 14-0 Bengals.

The Falcons simply fizzled out. I could give you the details but you don’t need them, if we’re being honest. Punt.

The Bengals were moving again. Burrow was able to pass essentially at-will to whoever he wanted, a product of Atlanta’s deep reserve at cornerback being on the field and the inherit weaknesses of this pass defense. When the quarter ended, they were close to the Atlanta 30.

2nd Quarter

The Bengals got another touchdown, this time on a deep shot to Ja’Marr Chase. The Bengals had 244 yards at this point, and were up 21-0. Oof.

The Falcons needed an answer, and they got a Drake London catch, Tyler Allgeier run, and Marcus Mariota fumble-turned-scramble to get a first down. An Allgeier run and Mariota completion to Olamide Zaccheaus got another first down. The Falcons picked up five on the ground and then got the first down on another Mariota zoom. Huntley picked up another first down, then got two yards before offsetting penalties wiped out a deep Mariota attempt. Fortunately, Allgeier picked up 10 yards on the next run, and then Huntley and Williams got rolling as well. The ground game’s work on the drive paid off (with the help of a defensive pass interference call) after a run stuff on Allgeier and a Kyle Pitts grab that was just short of a score, thanks to Tyler Allgeier jumping over the line and into the end zone. 21-7 Bengals.

A swift first down followed for the Bengals, but Grady Jarrett made it 2nd and 16 with a big sack of Burrow. Hurst got most of those yards back on a quick dart, and then picked up a first down on the next play. Lorenzo Carter’s sack made it 2nd and long, but a first down grab was followed by Chase bringing in a Burrow ball and out-running the defense for another touchdown. 28-7 Bengals.

Fortunately, the Falcons weren’t in the mood to roll over. Mariota hooked up with Damiere Byrd for a 70-plus touchdown connection on a nice ball that Byrd turned into a score. 28-14 Bengals.

Of course, Cincinnati still had a little time. They picked up a couple of first downs but did ultimately have to punt, and Avery Williams turned that punt into magic, picking up a huge return and leaving three seconds on the clock to give Younghoe Koo a chance at a field goal attempt. He got it, of course. 28-17 Bengals.

3rd Quarter

Atlanta’s drive featured a one yard gain by Allgeier, a throwaway with nowhere to go by Mariota, then a shot to Kyle Pitts that bounced out of a cornerback’s hands. Punt.

The Bengals found it too easy to move downfield, consistently picking up chunk yardage with passes to Tyler Boyd and runs from Joe Mixon. They were on the cusp of field goal range when the Falcons defense stiffened up, getting a stop on third down and producing a huge Cornell Armstrong pass deflection on fourth down. Turnover on downs.

Huntley lost three yards on his first carry of the drive, and then Mariota was sacked on second down. Mariota scrambled and took a big shot on third down, but it was short of the first down. Punt, and a penalty on Atlanta on Mike Ford, who also exited the game with an injury.

The Bengals found it easy to move against a Falcons secondary featuring Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, and the cast of a local high school theater production, getting all the way down to the one yard line on a series of increasingly improbable catches. Joe Burrow punched it in on a quarterback sneak and it was 35-17 Bengals.

The ground game struggled while Olamide Zaccheaus got the job done, with a first down picked up. Unfortunately, Huntley got buried and Mariota got nowhere on back-to-back runs, and on third down Mariota was sacked after Sam Hubbard beat Kaleb McGary. Punt.

Burrow found no trouble moving the ball—with an assist from Mixon—until DeAngelo Malone got a big first down sack that dropped Burrow for a nine yard loss. The Bengals did end up punting.

4th Quarter

Atlanta didn’t get a lot going on the first two downs, but a sharp Mariota pass to Pitts got the first down for the Falcons. That same dynamic played out on the next series, as Mariota again bailed out the offense with a zippy pass to Zaccheaus on third down. Unfortunately, it fizzled out after that, as Mariota was driven down for a big loss on a sack on third down. Punt again.

The Bengals were intent on moving and running down the clock to forestall any extremely unlikely Falcons comeback. They did so very well, continually keeping it moving through impressive catches and solid enough Mixon runs, turning a great punt into a long, clock-grinding drive. The Falcons got the Bengals to fourth down at the end of the game, but Timothy Horne jumped offsides to prolong the drive. Game over.