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Falcons vs. Colts recap: The gift of a very overdue complete game

On Christmas Eve, the Falcons reversed a two game losing streak in dominant fashion over a previously surging Colts team.

Indianapolis Colts v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Will it be too little, too late or better late than never?

That’s probably one of the first questions you’re asking yourself after the Atlanta Falcons turned the Indianapolis Colts into glue on Christmas Eve, turning a 7-0 deficit after an opening Indy drive into an impressive, all-three-phases-clicking 29-10 victory. The Colts had been 5-1 in their previous six games and had put together a couple of dominant efforts against bad teams in prior weeks; in this one, the Falcons strung together long scoring drives, smothered a previously hot Colts offense, and saw Younghoe Koo return to form and bang in five field goals. It was the most dominant win of the season by a country mile, and the kind of effort we thought we might get from this team on a more regular basis in 2023. The fact that it took until Week 16 to see this kind of lopsided result, and that it came against one of the better teams on Atlanta’s schedule, makes it equal parts baffling, infuriating, and enjoyable.

Taken in isolation, though? What a fun damn game. The Falcons answered the Colts’ opening touchdown drive with one of their own thanks to some pretty passing from Taylor Heinicke, and Koo repeatedly enlarged the lead with his field goal tries. Add in some really fun runs, including a huge Tyler Allgeier touchdown scamper, and you had plenty of offense from a team that too often scores too little. Defensively, the Falcons didn’t just smother an effective Colts ground game, they also delivered six sacks and plenty of highlight-worthy plays against the Indianapolis aerial attack, including yet another Jessie Bates interception. It reminded me of the out-of-nowhere, hugely dominant win over the 49ers in 2022, when the Falcons took it to a better team for a convincing win. As 2023 Sundays go, this was about as good as it gets, and I genuinely delighted in watching the Falcons stomp the Colts.

In the bigger picture, this may or may not cloud Arthur Smith’s future with the team. I’ve said before and will repeat again that Arthur Blank and Rich McKay should absolutely not make a decision based on what Smith does over the final three games, especially if it upends the way they were leaning previously, but if the team was leaning toward keeping him (as I suspect) this game will only add to their pro list. The importance of paying attention to the full picture when evaluating Smith is something I’ll harp on, whether or not ownership and the front office are actually listening. Either way, the Falcons are still nominally in the playoff hunt with the Seahawks and Saints having lost, though the division is on shakier ground with the Buccaneers crushing the Jaguars. Winning their final two games and crossing their fingers is about the best they can do.

For one Sunday, though, we got a holiday-adjacent look through the window at another world, one where things went the way they were supposed to for this 2023 Falcons squad and a thumping was delivered to a quality team. As gifts go, it’s one that arrived late and doesn’t carry the weight it might’ve before the optimism withered away, but I did appreciate the glimpse. Now it’s up to the Falcons to finish out the season, make what push they will, and then make considered and smart choices for their coaching staff and quarterback position, among other critical decisions to come.

On to the full recap, and Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate.

The Good

  • The Falcons went to Taylor Heinicke earlier this year looking for a spark, and they only got that for a half against the Titans and a couple stretches in the following two games. This time, they went back to him searching for a spark in even more desperate times, and Heinicke got the fire roaring. On the opening drive of the game, Heinicke threw one bonehead ball that was nearly picked off, but he rallied to throw a sharp ball to Scotty Miller on third down and then a beautiful deep ball over a defender and right into the hands of an open Kyle Pitts for a touchdown. The rest of the afternoon, Heinicke picked up yards on runs when he needed to, made some impressive (if sometimes unwise) tight window throws, and despite some close calls avoided turnovers to engineer some long, quality drives. Given how many terrible mistakes Ridder made and how unproductive the offense too often was with the young quarterback at the helm, the fact that Heinicke looked pretty comfortable and confident and did not turn the ball over was a massive improvement. He’ll hope to keep it rolling against the Bears.
  • Bijan Robinson had been bottled up and ineffective in recent weeks, but with most of the starting offensive line back, he got the one block he needed early on. On the opening drive, he busted out a 32 yard run where he showed frightening acceleration to give Atlanta excellent field position and a chance for a touchdown. Later on, he’d throw in another long run to set the Falcons up for a score, and finished the day with 72 yards on 12 carries. He was also the team’s leading receiver both in terms of yards and receptions, with seven grabs for 50 yards, and functioned as a do-everything option for the Falcons. That’s more like it.
  • Tyler Allgeier got in on the fun, too, with a huge touchdown run in the third quarter. Allgeier got to the outside thanks to quality blocking and then went into with only one defender lightly making contact, and he went 31 yards for the big score. He finished the day with nine carries for 69 yards, breaking multiple tackles and showcasing some real burst en route to his most efficient rushing day in a long while.
  • So did Cordarrelle Patterson, who turned seven carries into 26 yards, which isn’t super impressive numbers-wise but looked much more impressive when Patterson was delivering a few old school, powerful runs. When everyone’s rolling in this backfield, it’s magic; we just haven’t seen that happen often enough.
  • The run blocking was back to semi-normal in this one, and you saw the difference on the ground. Tucker Fisk, in particular, operated as the team’s fill-in fullback with Keith Smith hitting injured reserve and delivered some important blocks, even if they weren't always graceful. You also saw Matthew Bergeron spring some big Tyler Allgeier runs, Jake Matthews set up a 26 yarder for Bijan Robinson, and so forth as the team got back to doing what it does so well. If the team can get Kaleb McGary back for their game against the Bears next week, they might really be cooking.
  • There were no standout receivers—no 100 yard days, at least—but everyone seemed to contribute in some way. Kyle Pitts leads our list with a rare and welcome touchdown grab after he got himself wide open in the end zone, and because he contributed two other catches for a total of 49 yards. Drake London was making strong contested grabs, KhaDarel Hodge made a nice grab on a play that might have otherwise been picked off, and Jonnu Smith was customarily good at powering through contact. Heinicke was content to spread the ball around and capable of doing so, and that meant solid days for just about everyone.
  • Zach Harrison is starting to roll. In this one, his first sack came when Minshew tripped over his own lineman, but it counts nonetheless and Harrison was there to make it happen. In the fourth quarter, he chased down Minshew again to prevent a scramble and stop him for a sack, making it three in two weeks. That plus an excellent pursuit on Taylor to prevent a gain on an early run stop showcased the kind of growth the 2023 third rounder is making, and it’s starting to look like he can be a valuable piece of this defensive front in 2024. Oh, and he came pretty close to blocking a second quarter punt, as well. The team knew he would take some time, but that investment is paying off in a major way as the young defensive lineman catches fire late.
  • Ditto Arnold Ebiketie, who picked up sack 6 and continues to lead the team while also tying the most single season sacks any Falcon has managed since 2019, when Vic Beasley had 8 and Grady Jarrett had 7.5 (he’s tied with 2022 Jarrett). Ebiketie helped to take down Minshew one play after Harrison with relentless pursuit, ending the drive for Indy and showcasing his ability. He also had a nice pressure in the second quarter to force Minshew on a short, drive-ending scramble, and then assisted on a Kaden Elliss sack by creating an opportunity later that same quarter. It looked to me that Ebiketie was getting more opportunities Sunday, and it’s about time after he has been earning them.
  • Kaden Elliss got in on the sack party in the second quarter by bullying his way to Minshew for his third sack of the season. Elliss has done a little bit of everything in 2023, proving to be the quality addition the Falcons needed at inside linebacker.
  • Calais Campbell is still playing an impressively high level for a player who has a lot of NFL miles on him. In this one, he had some nice plays against the run and came up with a big sack on Minshew in the third quarter, one that basically killed a would-be touchdown drive and forced a field goal try. His faith in this team’s likely playoff push hasn’t exactly paid off, but Campbell has been the kind of leader and player the Falcons needed.
  • Richie Grant showed up late to get a sack and then get tangled up with a receiver on a play that somehow wasn’t ruled pass interference, likely because Minshew’s heave was so long that the officiating crew felt it was uncatchable. Either way, he made a big impact on back-to-back plays, and if nothing else his utility as a blitzer is welcome.
  • Jessie Bates was in on a few important plays in this one, including a tipped ball that ended a would-be Colts scoring drive, but his biggest play of the day was a fourth quarter interception to end Indy’s last gap attempt to catch up down 13 points. Bates made the leaping grab for his sixth interception of the year, one of the higher totals in team history, and he continues to be one of the league’s elite safeties and great investments in a Falcons offseason full of them.
  • I’d be remiss not to give credit to the larger secondary, which turned in the kind of day that enabled pressure to get home. Clark Phillips, A.J. Terrell, and DeMarcco Hellams all had shakier moments (Terrell and Hellams both earned P.I.), but they also were a major part of the reason that Gardner Minshew was held to his fourth-lowest yardage total of the season and lowest completion percentage. Ditto the larger defensive front, which held the Colts under 100 yards, bottled up the very talented Jonathan Taylor, and routinely blew up plays in the backfield. This defense’s late struggles in prior weeks were frustrating, but the leap that side of the ball made in 2023 is really the best story of the year for the Falcons.
  • Younghoe Koo drilled five field goals, which should put minds at ease. Remember, Koo missed two against Tampa Bay and didn’t get a chance to try one against Carolina, so seeing how he responded was key. The fact that he made all five tries and scored more than half of Atlanta’s points with his leg made it clear once again that the bad day was a mere temporary blemish for one of the league’s best kickers, and it was good to see him return to the top-notch form we know and love.
  • This is a glimpse at what might have been and one that’s not worth mourning overmuch—little to be done about it heading into Week 17—but this Falcons team was very capable of doing exactly this if they could have just avoided the turnovers all season long. In this game, the Falcons had some close calls but did not turn it over once, and the fact that they won the turnover margin and ended their productive drives with at least some points on a day where they had just two touchdowns meant a simple victory thanks to the strength of the Falcons defense. I wish we could’ve seen the alternate world version of this team that either got Heinicke in earlier or got Ridder to settle down and stop turning it over so much.

The Ugly

  • The Falcons don’t allow many first quarter scoring drives, especially on the opening drive of the game, but they did against the Colts. Gardner Minshew got into a rhythm in the short passing game, Jonathan Taylor was excellent, and they drove 75 yards with only a couple of moments where the Colts looked like they might stall out. It was also the first running back touchdown allowed in 2023, making it an extra bitter result for the defense. Fortunately for them, that was not a sign of things to come the rest of the day.
  • Heinicke played pretty well and is sticking under center, as he should, but there’s little question he got away with some plays on Sunday. He threw 3-5 balls that had a good chance to be intercepted, one of them right at a defender who thankfully dropped it, and managed to fumble a snap (that the Falcons luckily fell on) on the afternoon. The positives outweighed the negatives on the day for Heinicke—Arthur Smith was glowing in his praise for him, and Heinicke led the team to a season-high number of points—but hopefully the veteran quarterback can iron some of those out next week before a fumble takes a bad bounce or a defender gets a better hand on one of those potential interceptions and we suddenly have A Problem.
  • When the Falcons need a short gain on crucial third downs (or fourth downs, for that matter), it’s too often a major question mark as to whether they’ll get it. This time, it was a long-developing running play on 3rd and 1 at the end of the first quarter that gave the Colts defense time to rally to the ball before Tyler Allgeier could make it back to the line of scrimmage. That set up a punt after a promising start to the drive, and it continues to rankle that a team that should be able to run so well can’t come up with a yard when they really need one. Fortunately, they did get one in the second quarter.
  • I’m not sure exactly what happened on the play with 10 seconds left in the second quarter, but Arthur Smith seemed pissed off that the Falcons didn’t get a play off and Heinicke just seemed nonplussed. That set up a longer-than-desired 47 yard field goal try, which Younghoe Koo thankfully hit. The Falcons have been prone to dumb errors—false starts and pass interference among them in this one—and they were fortunate they weren’t overly costly on Sunday.
  • Seriously, where the hell was this all season? Knowing this team was capable of it and watching them dither and fritter away games all year long while trying to defend the core talent and the strength of the offseason nearly drove me mad. Seeing it now, when it’s on the precipice of being too late (if it isn’t too late) is maddening, no matter how much I enjoyed this game.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

A team award, I think, with Heinicke playing well, the ground game rolling, the line blocking well, the defense kicking ass, and Koo hitting all his field goal tries. For the first time in a long time, there weren’t any true weak links.

One Takeaway

The Falcons have had the ability to do this all season long if not for all the unforced errors and sudden lapses; whether you find the late arrival of this fortitude comforting or infuriating likely depends on your perspective on their likely fortunes over the end of the year.

Next Week

A trip to see the Chicago Bears and a chance to get back to .500 with the end of the season looming, which would in turn set up a huge confrontation with the Saints to end the season. Check out Windy City Gridiron for more.

Final Word