Wins mean something when you’re still in the thick of a playoff race. Once a team is officially eliminated, the focus shifts from the holy grail of postseason placement to a fairly binary debate about the virtue of victory. Is winning worth it for the potential progress, a more enjoyable Sunday, and the pride of those playing, or is draft position far more important?
That debate has been raging for a while now—the Falcons weren’t entirely out of it, but they were pretty close for a long time—but it certainly intensified after Sunday. Atlanta hosted a injury-ravaged, lousy Cardinals team and wound up winning what amounted to a matchup between one-legged men in an ass kicking contest. Pretty much immediately, fans hoping for a crack at a top pass rusher or franchise quarterback like Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud got angry at the team for winning now when it’s too late for them to actually contend, while everyone else got...well, the satisfaction of watching their favorite team win a football game for the first time since November.
It was a muted sort of satisfaction. We saw Desmond Ridder look improved yet again, watched Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier tear it up, and saw the defense muster a pair of sacks, with Richie Grant’s blocked punt serving as the true standout play of the day. Given the state of Arizona coming into this one, it’s hard to celebrate this victory as some grand sign that the Falcons are ending the year with momentum. Given the fact that the Falcons eliminated any chance of landing a top five pick, it might even sting, depending on your perspective. Either way, the reality is that the win meant a spot or two in the draft order and a morale boost for a team that seemed to be badly in need of it.
And at this stage of the season, that’s probably about all we should expect. Atlanta’s locked into a top ten pick in this draft now, whether they win or lose against the Buccaneers, but they can’t go any higher than the sixth pick. Knocking off a Tampa Bay team that has nothing to play for next week and might park Tom Brady will still feel good for Atlanta—beating the Bucs never goes out of style—but the Falcons can really only make a little progress, finish out the year as best they can, and then set about making that top ten pick and all that cap space work for them. The 2023 season is what matters, and if the Cardinals game and the final game help the coaching staff figure out who is going to be a part of what’s going to be expected to be an improved Falcons squad next year, then the rest is just noise. Unfortunately, that might include the wistful sighs we might have for really good rookies who land elsewhere, but the Falcons should be able to make good use of their top ten pick.
On to the full recap.
- Stellar run blocking has been a major part of the team’s success all year, but rarely have they opened huge holes like they did on the opening drive against the Cardinals. On a fourth down try and subsequent first down inside the 20, the line gave Tyler Allgeier a ton of room to work with and allowed him to pick up an easy 10-plus yards on 4th and 1 and then score a touchdown. Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson are terrific, physical backs, but it’s never bad when the line makes their life easy. It unfortunately didn’t happen all day, but on Atlanta’s two touchdowns and a handful of other carries, the blocking was a sight to behold.
- I don’t expect the debate over Desmond Ridder’s future to die down, but aside from that inexcusable fumbled snap early in the game that led to a quick Arizona score, he was pretty good on Sunday. A fantastic sideline ball to Damiere Byrd erased by a drop and what seemed like a should-have-been pass interference and a Cordarrelle Patterson touchdown pass that wasn’t—the ball was ruled incomplete after it was ripped away, but I thought maybe Patterson had already gone to the ground—took a bite out of his production, but that’s true of any quarterback on a given day. More importantly, he looked sharper and more capable than he did against Baltimore after looking sharper and more capable than he did against New Orleans. Growth is good.
The big question is whether he’s showing enough for the Falcons to invest in him as the future at quarterback, and the honest and somewhat scary truth is that we just don’t know yet. Week-to-week improvement and his first game-winning drive is a good look for a player working in an offense that is still very much a work in progress, but aside from a couple of really pretty throws, we’ve yet to see Ridder put together stretches of truly impressive play that would indicate he’ll elevate this offense. My suspicion is that Atlanta will give it a try with him at the helm next year—obviously with a veteran to push him a bit over the summer—but four games of solid play is not really enough for fans or maybe even the team to know if he’s the guy or not.
The hope is that the live arm and command of the offense we’ve seen thus far are harbingers of better things to come, because it would be ideal if the Falcons felt they could go into next year without needing to expend a ton of resources on a quarterback and just built the roster up as much as possible around Ridder.
- Tyler Allgeier is RB1. The rookie has gained steam with each passing week, showing that he’s comfortable doing everything you’d ask your top back to do and running through contact like it hasn’t occurred to him that anyone could stop him. He looks like he should be a fixture in this backfield for years to come, and more than anything else that’s happened this year, that gives me hope that this offense will have a baseline level of competency.
- Why did it take so long for the Falcons to use Cordarrelle Patterson more frequently as a receiver? The veteran finished Sunday with the second-most all-purpose yards on the team, with 42 on the ground and 42 through the air, plus a touchdown he ran in and a should-have-been touchdown he nearly reeled in. That versatility, which made Patterson so dangerous at times in 2021, has been absent throughout 2022, with this game marking the first time he’s caught more than three passes this season. It should continue in Week 18, and if Patterson’s on the roster next year, hopefully he’ll be used more frequently as the capable receiver he is.
- It’s fun to imagine what Kyle Pitts might be doing with Desmond Ridder under center right now, because the rookie has not been shy about targeting tight ends in the passing game. The big beneficiary on Sunday was MyCole Pruitt, who actually led the team in receiving yards with 49 and made a couple of nice grabs along the way. With the tight end depth chart relatively unsettled—Anthony Firkser probably won’t be back and I have no idea what John FitzPatrick can be—Pruitt feels like a smart re-signing as a well-rounded option who has forged a nice rapport with two separate quarterbacks in NFL.
- This was a big game for Isaiah Oliver, who seemed to be slipping out of the team’s plans after his playing time had dwindled over the past several weeks. On Sunday, he led the team in tackles, made a couple of very nice plays in coverage, and came up with one of Atlanta’s two (!) sacks alongside Adetokunbo Ogundeji. If Oliver plays this well against the Buccaneers, that strong finish might bode well for his prospects of returning to Atlanta in 2023, something I might’ve bet against a short time ago.
- It felt like every corner made a nice play or two today, even if allowing David Blough to look like a competent NFL quarterback meant virtually nobody had a great day. A.J. Terrell had an interception on a play that was called back and delivered some big hits, Cornell Armstrong and Dee Alford made plays in coverage that they hadn’t in recent weeks, and Darren Hall came up with a crucial stop. It’s a nice end of year note for a group that had, outside of Terrell, mostly struggled over the past couple of months.
- Richie Grant’s punt block was just a fantastic play where he managed to charge into the punter’s face untouched, pop the ball in the air, and set the Falcons up to recover and score. Grant has been a good safety on balance this year, but he’s still a special kind of special teamer, and this was a good reminder of that.
- Speaking of special teams, Bradley Pinion’s best punt was an absolute thing of beauty, rolling its way out of bounds at the one yard line to pin Arizona way back in their own territory. He’s been a little up and down, but the good has outweighed the bad of late and the coaching staff in Atlanta seems to like him, so I’m betting he’ll be back in 2023.
- Ridder is trying to show he belongs and should be the long-term starter, so mistakes are magnified. On a day where he was pretty crisp through the air, though, he made one major unforced error when he screwed up the handling of a snap deep in Atlanta’s territory and fumbled it, resulting in Arizona picking it up and easily scoring. It was the kind of play that could have easily won the Cardinals the game, and something the Falcons will be weighing against his otherwise solid work on Sunday.
- I’m not pinning this all on Matt Hennessy—at least not until I re-watch the game and see whether or not I should—but the pass protection endured some rough stretches on Sunday despite only allowing one sack. Ridder escaped at least two-to-three by sheer force of will, meaning this was not among the line’s finest days protecting the quarterback.
- The defense is functioning the way Dean Pees wants it to, limiting scoring even if opposing teams have long and frustrating drives, and you do have to give them credit for that. The fact that they allowed well over 100 yards on the ground again and struggled to put the brakes on an extremely underwhelming Arizona passing attack means I’m not going to celebrate this particular effort all that much, even if Blough’s lone touchdown pass came after the Cardinals got the ball right near the goal line. I’m hopeful we’re seeing things round into shape for the Falcons ahead of a pivotal offseason where they can and should upgrade everywhere, but the progress on that side of the ball has been stop-and-start and hit-or-miss, if we’re being frank.
- You’re going to have some borderline calls, but that pass interference call on Dee Alford was a bad one. It looked like Alford simply had his hand on the receiver, who fell down mostly on his own accord, and it proved to be costly as the Cardinals picked up a ton of yardage on third down after Blough ripped it deep. Every team can justifiably complain about bad calls, but the Falcons have eaten quite a few of them in recent weeks, and it’s making an already uphill climb for a scuffling team even harder.
“Bonus” points for the missed pass interference call on Ridder’s beautiful sideline ball to Damiere Byrd in the fourth quarter.
- Seeing Isaiah Oliver playing well with more time, Dee Alford mostly holding his own with a longer look, and Patterson doing fine work as a receiving option in this game made me feel vaguely crazy. If I have a persistent criticism of this coaching staff outside of time management and curmudgeonly behavior, it’s that they seem to be hesitant to stick with things and players that are faring well for reasons that are almost entirely opaque. With Marcus Mariota starting over Desmond Ridder it was at least ostensibly because the team was still in contention, but what explains not using Patterson as a pass catcher when he was such a weapon in that role a year ago, and why was Oliver seemingly parked for so long when it’s evident he can help?
These are questions I don’t expect an answer to, but they’re still worth asking.
Once again, the backfield earns the honors, and I’ll share it between Allgeier and Patterson. The duo combined for much of the offense’s production, both of its touchdowns (and nearly another one), and they continue to be the most reliable aspect of the team. Honorable mention to Grant for that blocked punt.
The Falcons continue to show us that they need significant upgrades and overhauls this coming spring, but at least they can beat a terrible, injury-marred team.
The season finale against the Buccaneers. Regrettably, Tampa Bay has clinched the NFC South, meaning they Falcons can’t play spoiler. The best they can do is make the Buccaneers suffer through a long afternoon Sunday.