Fortunately, this won’t actually go down in the record books as Atlanta’s third Super Bowl loss. But it’s a loss that hurts nearly as much in the context of this season. All week long, the Falcons have talked about the importance of winning this game and taking a 5-5 record into the bye week. Well, if this is how they approach a must-win game, there’s really no point in playing out the remainder of the season.
They needed to give their best shot here, and instead they got knocked out. That is becoming the norm in Atlanta, and it’s the reason why Arthur Smith’s seat continues to grow hotter.
The passing game didn’t have any juice
There were plenty of quick passes for Taylor Heinicke and the Falcons, but a lack of explosive plays through the air made life harder on Atlanta’s offense. Since Week 5, the Falcons led the league in plays of 10-plus yards with 75 such plays. They also ranked third with 21 plays of 20-plus yards. Atlanta took a more surgical approach on Sunday, however.
Both Heinicke and Desmond Ridder played in this game, but the Falcons totaled just 94 yards through the air. The team’s longest passing play went for 18 yards, and that was a catch-and-run by Drake London. Yes, the Falcons made a concerted effort to reestablish the run game with Bijan Robinson in this one, but the offense never found a semblance of rhythm after the two touchdown drives in the second quarter. The Cardinals ranked 29th in passing yards allowed per play entering Sunday, but the Falcons proved to be an antidote to that ineptitude.
Atlanta’s defense missed Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata
We knew Jarrett would, unfortunately, miss the remainder of the season, but when Onyemata was listed among the Falcons’ inactives for Sunday’s game, it meant Atlanta would be without two of its top defensive players—and certainly its two best interior defenders. Against a Cardinals team getting Kyler Murray and James Conner back in the lineup, that was more than enough reason for concern.
Arizona had its successes on the ground, but the Falcons ultimately did enough to corral the Cardinals' rushing attack. However, it was the lack of a consistent pass rush from the front four that allowed Murray to be effective through the air and as a scrambler in his first game back from an ACL injury.
Murray completed 19 of his 32 pass attempts for 249 yards with an interception, but he gained 33 yards and a touchdown on six carries. His most impactful play came with under two minutes remaining. On third down with the pocket collapsing on his, Murray evaded a poor Arnold Ebiketie closing attempt and broke contain for a 13-yard gain that preserved the Cardinals’ chances and continued their game-winning drive. Having Jarrett and Onyemata out there may not have changed things, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
Bijan Robinson found his footing
Atlanta brought its bread and butter to the desert. On Saturday, Dianna Russini—an excellent reporter for The Athletic—shared on Twitter that Bijan Robinson’s usage could soon see an uptick. She was spot on with that reporting, and the Falcons turned to their star rookie early and often against Arizona. The Tucson native looked sharp in all phases back in his home state, even lining up as punt returner at one point early on.
Robinson led the team with 95 yards—one more than the Falcons’ passing output—and scored his second rushing touchdown of the season. He caught just one pass for 11 yards, which is a notable downturn in his usage as a receiver. But on a day when the entire Atlanta passing game struggled, that’s not necessarily a critique of the individual.
Still, if this is a bright spot, it’s like a lone distant star in a sea of black.
Special teams had another letdown moment
Greg Dortch returned a punt 49 yards late in the third quarter, and it provided a spark of momentum for the Cardinals and their home crowd. It was yet another blunder by the Falcons’ special teams unit, which is among the league’s worst in both returns and coverage this season. The return looked like it would be stopped short when Lorenzo Carter careened into Dortch, but the Cardinals’ return man bounced off the tackle and found a huge gap down the left side.
Three plays later, the Cardinals took a 22-17 lead with a Clayton Tune quarterback sneak. In a game between one team fighting for the No. 1 overall draft pick and another fighting for the division lead, it’s plays like this that make the difference. For Atlanta, they’ve allowed those differences far too often to be taken seriously.
Taylor Heinicke left the game in the fourth quarter
On a second-down scramble, Heinicke appeared to injure his right leg and was forced to leave the game. That opened the door for Desmond Ridder to return to the helm of Atlanta’s offense. He picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak on a fourth down just two plays after entering the game, but his second quarterback sneak ended the drive.
Ridder had what appeared to be a first-down lane, but he tripped over his offensive linemen while driving forward and slipped on the Arizona grass. That mistake landed him several inches short of the line to gain, and it gave the Cardinals the ball back with under 8 minutes to play and the home team leading 22-17.
Heinicke was ruled out with a hamstring injury following the drive, adding even more fuel to the quarterback controversy heading into Atlanta’s bye week.