The Atlanta Falcons left the coal at home and delivered a gem in what could be their final home game of the season. There’s a chance it won’t be if they handle business and things shake their way in the final two games, but Atlanta fans will at least have a nice memory to keep if this does turn out to be the last one in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the 2023 season.
Atlanta’s offense finally looked like the unit we expected to see this year, and there’s still the potential for so much more. Taylor Heinicke was efficient and poised, the running game had stretches of dominance, and the defense was as steadfast as it always is.
This truly was a great gift for the Falcons to deliver, and it will allow fans to head into the holidays with a bit more bounce in their step, even if we still don’t know what ghosts are yet to come over the final two games.
Here are some immediate takeaways from today’s game:
It didn’t take long for Taylor Heinicke to make an impression
Under Desmond Ridder, the Falcons struggled to consistently overcome adversity and march the ball downfield, especially early in games. Therefore, it’s notable that Heinicke marched the Falcons downfield for a touchdown on the team’s opening drive and made two key throws in the process.
His completion to Scotty Miller on third-and-6 was the catalyst. It was an excellent bit of quarterback play from Heinicke, who patiently progressed through his reads before finding Miller and fitting the ball into the zone pocket for a 15-yard gain. On the next play, Robinson broke free for an electric 32-yard sprint that underscored the importance of keeping drives going. With the defense on its heels, the Falcons kept the pressure on and Heinicke delivered a pass on the next play with the perfect amount of touch and Kyle Pitts reeled it in for a touchdown.
There was nothing particularly special about Heinicke’s two critical completions, but he executed two very different plays exactly as he needed to. Right now, that’s what the Falcons need most.
That start proved to be a sign of things to come for Heinicke and the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta looked as smooth and comfortable as it has all season on the offensive end, wracking up over 400 yards for the sixth time this season and actually putting points on the board at the end of drives. Heinicke was the right blend of conservative and gunslinger, pressing the defense’s pressure points downfield but also taking the open checkdown when nothing was available.
He finished the game 23-of-33 for 229 yards with one touchdown. It’s not the type of performance that will have anyone saying he’s the long-term answer, but it was a nice change of pace.
Jessie Bates is the Falcons’ 2023 MVP
Some were skeptical that the Falcons’ first big-ticket free agency acquisition of the Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot era was a safety, whom they decided to make a top-five-paid player at the position. However, Jessie Bates has been worth every penny and more this season.
Those who had been paying attention to Bates’s career in Cincinnati knew what to expect from the former second-team All-Pro. He’s an ultra-reliable centerfielder who doesn’t miss tackles and reads the quarterback as well as anyone in the league. That’s been evident time and again this season, and it was on Sunday as well.
In the fourth quarter, Bates picked off Minshew to earn his sixth interception of the season, which marks a new career high. He also entered Sunday’s game as the Falcons’ leading tackler with 111 stops. Bates has single-handedly swung games this season, and there’s been no obvious blemish on his resume. It’s not even really a debate at this point: Bates has been the best Falcons player this season and one of the best safeties in the NFL.
Atlanta gets its ground game going to start the second half
The Falcons turned back the clocks a year coming out of halftime. Discounting the fumbled snap on the first play of the second half—a problem that continues to linger—the Falcons ran the ball five times on their seven-play scoring drive to start the third quarter. The five carries gained a total of 59 yards and featured all three of Atlanta’s backs.
Robinson got the drive going with a 14-yard catch followed up by a 5-yard run. He then ceded the workload to Cordarrelle Patterson, who carried the ball three straight times for 23 yards. But it was Allgeier who finished the drive with an exclamation point. Allgeier followed picture-perfect blocking around the right side and did not stop until he’d sprinted 31 yards for a touchdown.
This score gave Atlanta a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter, which is a lead it has rarely enjoyed throughout the year. The lack of a dominant ground game is one of the surprising occurrences for the Falcons in 2023, but they looked very imposing to start the third quarter.
Falcons allow first rushing TD to an opposing running back
Perhaps no fact epitomizes just how good Atlanta’s defense has been in 2023 better than this one: In Week 16, Jonathan Taylor became the first running back to score a rushing touchdown against the Falcons. The only opposing players to score on the ground against Atlanta have been quarterbacks.
The Falcons nearly kept their ground-game perfection going, preventing the Colts from gaining a yard on first and second down from the 1-yard line. However, Taylor just managed to get the ball across on third down to cap off Indianapolis’s opening drive with a touchdown. Although the Falcons’ incredible streak came to an end, it’s something the defense should feel very proud of.
The pass rush came to play
After recording only five sacks through the first five games of the season, Atlanta’s pass rush really turned things around. The Falcons had 25 sacks from Weeks 6-15, and they added to that total in a big way on Sunday. Atlanta sacked Gardner Minshew six times on Sunday, including twice on third down.
As has typically been the case this fall, it was a group effort for the Falcons’ defensive rotation. Zach Harrison earned the second sack of his career in the first quarter and added his third midway through the fourth. The rookie now has a sack in back-to-back games and seems to be finding his stride in a big way. Calais Campbell chipped in with 1.5 sacks, which brings his total to 5.5 on the year, and Arnold Ebiketie added a half-sack to give him a team-high six sacks this season.
The Falcons haven’t been shy about blitzing this season, and it paid off again on Sunday. Kaden Elliss and Richie Grant each recorded a sack while coming from the second level, and those manufactured pressures helped keep Minshew off-rhythm for much of the afternoon.
Atlanta’s defense has been so good all season long, and it kept up that high standard again in this one. It was nice to see the offense finally capitalize on the great defensive play, though.