The Falcons haven’t made things easy for themselves this season, but they now sit alone in the division lead after a 13-8 victory against the New York Jets. A steady downpour at MetLife Stadium undoubtedly contributed to the lower point total, and the defense was lights out against a bad Jets offense, so this is a win that should be celebrated.
As always, questions remain. The offense was held under 200 yards and special teams continues to be a problem spot for the Falcons, but it’s far better to address those problems after a win, especially when a team is in the mix for a playoff spot.
While the dust continues to settle, let’s get to some immediate takeaways.
Increasing the NFC South lead
A victory on Sunday, coupled with the Saints’ 33-28 loss to the Detroit Lions, gives the Falcons even more breathing room in the NFC South. Both teams entered Sunday with identical 5-6 records, but Atlanta stood atop the division thanks to the head-to-head victory against New Orleans last week. That victory is still important for the remainder of the season, but the Falcons don’t want to leave the division title to tiebreakers.
So, they took matters into their own hands and now stand alone atop the division standings. With only five games remaining, that’s exactly where this team wants to be. Who cares how they got here.
Atlanta’s defense handled its business
Yes, this was a Jets offense that has been abhorrent in 2023. But Atlanta has at times made things much easier on offenses with complicated quarterback situations than expected, and there was at least a small concern that could happen again. Instead, the Falcons built upon their strong defensive performance in the red zone against the Saints, and they didn’t give the Jets a chance to get rolling.
Atlanta also forced three turnovers in this contest, none bigger than the fourth-quarter fumble forced by safety Richie Grant that stopped one of the Jets’ most threatening drives. Jessie Bates secured his fifth interception of the season, setting a new career high for the former second-team All-Pro. Nate Landman earned the first turnover of the game with a forced fumble in the second quarter that led to the Falcons’ first touchdown.
The Falcons held the Jets to just 2-of-15 on third down, recorded four sacks and allowed only two field goals. Atlanta’s defense has allowed only one touchdown in its last three games, and it’s held opponents out of the end zone in nine straight quarters.
A.J. Terrell among key injured Falcons starters
Atlanta lost one of its key defenders on the very first defensive possession. Terrell, who figured to be locked into one of the game’s premiere matchups against Jets receiver Garrett Wilson, suffered a head injury while making a physical open-field tackle on New York’s first third down of the game. He made his way to the sideline and entered the blue medical tent before eventually heading into the locker room. Terrell never returned to the game and was ruled out with a concussion.
In his place, rookie Clark Phillips III stepped up with a very nice performance. It was the second game in which Phillips saw action on defense—the first came against Arizona—and he looked confident and composed. The former Utah defender was especially impressive as a tackler.
Unfortunately, Terrell wasn’t the only starter to exit the game for Atlanta. Right tackle Kaleb McGary also left the action due to a knee injury in the second quarter and was replaced by Storm Norton. McGary was coming off of one of his best games of the season against New Orleans and is a valuable run blocker. However, the Falcons found little running room against New York’s stout defensive line, regardless of who their right tackle was.
In the fourth quarter, Atlanta’s defense sustained another blow. Undrafted linebacker Nate Landman, who is in the midst of a spectacular season, went to the turf with a leg injury. Unable to put any weight on his left leg, Landman had to be helped to the sideline by trainers. Before leaving the action, Landman was busy as usual. He had five tackles, including a big forced fumble that led to Atlanta’s first points of the game.
Another slow start on the road
The Falcons have not been the fastest-starting team in the NFL this season, but they’ve at least made strides in the first quarter after that was identified as a problem area through four games. However, those strides have mostly come at home. It’s still slow going for the offense on the road, and that was the case Sunday.
New York entered this game allowing the second-most points to opposing offense in the first quarter, but the Jets blanked the Falcons through the first 15 minutes. This was the sixth road game for Atlanta and the fourth time it's been shut out in the first quarter away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In total, the Falcons have scored 10 points in the opening quarter on the road this season.
Kyle Pitts had a productive day
Pitts has never emerged as the focal point of Atlanta’s offense, which many assumed he’d become after the team used the No. 4 overall pick on him in the 2021 NFL Draft. But he was targeted early and often in the New York downpour. He caught the first pass of the game, a 16-yard completion on third down, and that was an early signal of what was to come.
Pitts drew eight targets on Sunday, his third-highest total of the season. He caught four passes for 51 yards, which isn’t a crazy stat line by any means, but that’s unfortunately where we’re at. Hopefully, this is a sign that the increased usage will remain, but there’s always the possibility that this was a specific game plan due to the inclement weather and that things will return to normal in better conditions.