There were many things to be thankful for this year if you’re an Atlanta Falcons fan. Most notably the Falcons remain in first place with a little over a month to go in the season thanks to a convincing performance over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday at the Georgia Dome winning going away 38-19.
As the old adage goes sometimes the best things come in small packages. The Falcons are thankful for Taylor Gabriel being cut by the Cleveland Browns at the end of preseason. The 5’8” receiver scored twice once from 35 yards and the other from 25, both on screen passes that saw him burn the Cardinals offense. Gabriel accounted for 102 yards of total offense on the day 75 through he air and 27 on the ground. “It’s been crazy, man, just to be a part of a winning team and see how much of a brotherhood this is,” he said. “We’ve come together, man. I love it. I love being here, and I love the opportunity that they gave me to show my talents. So, I’m glad to be here, man.”
Billed as a potential shootout between two high-flying offenses it looked to live up to that promise early. The over/under on the game was 50.5 points and the two teams managed to top that with Atlanta almost doing it by themself. Taking the opening kickoff the Cardinals rapidly moved down the field going 75 yards using 5:21.
Palmer went 5-of-5 in the drive with four of the passes going for between 13 and 19 yards. The drive ended with a one-yard toss to Jermaine Gresham.
Atlanta reciprocated driving 75 yards as well as Matt Ryan was equally as effective completing 6-of-7 passes. Devonta Freeman scored on a one-yard plunge to even the score.
Arizona began to march right down the field again as running back David Johnson broke off a few big runs. The Cardinals drove down to the Falcons four-yard line when things started to go south for them. In shotgun formation Palmer mishandled the snap and recovered his own fumble for a 13-yard loss. Arizona was forced to settle for a field goal that would give them their last lead of the game at 10-7. From that point the Falcons started to flex their offensive muscle – more specific Gabriel started to flex his offensive muscle.
The surprise beginning of the season pickup has scored in each of the last two games before facing Arizona. On Atlanta’s first play from scrimmage he took an end around from Ryan and rumbled past midfield into Cardinal territory. The drive eventually stalled as the Falcons settled for a Matt Bryant field goal to tie the score.
After the teams exchanged punts the Falcons found themselves in great field position at the Arizona 45. Ryan hit Julio Jones for ten yards and then a screen pass to Gabriel went 35 yards and a touchdown as he was able to outrun defenders diving into the end zone to make the score 17-10.
With time running out on the half Atlanta looked to be driving once again. Near midfield Ryan threw across the middle to Jones who bobbled the throw that ended up being intercepted with five seconds to go. Palmer completed a quick pass to Larry Fitzgerald who called timeout with 1 tick left on the clock. Candler Catanzaro connected from 54 yards to make the score 17-13.
The third quarter was a little rough for both quarterbacks. Neither offense seemed to be getting anything going that included a series where Ryan was sacked on three consecutive plays. It would have been four but another sack was nullified by a penalty.
Then the Falcons got their act together. The team that was averaging the most points in the NFL started to make their move against the league’s top defense. The Falcons drove 78 yards on 13 plays that saw Ryan complete his only two passes to his tight ends – Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo. They complimented runs by Freeman, Tevin Campbell and even Ryan who converted a third and long with an 11-yard run. Coleman ended the drive going over the middle from two yards out. Having returned after missing two weeks he was a welcome addition to the lineup. “It’s an important part for us,” head coach Dan Quinn said about the RB duo. “We certainly missed (Coleman) the last few weeks. … He’s another weapon on the offense. The speed and the ability to make a cut and try to accelerate and try to break an angle down (facing) a safety or a linebacker. Man, was he ready to get back. He worked hard during the rehab process to get ready, and I was pleased with his performance today.” After the running game was shutdown in Philadelphia the Falcons managed to gain over 100 yards again on the ground.
After his worst outing of the season Ryan came back strong as he spread the ball to eight different receivers. He finished the game with a 106.1 quarterback rating completing 26-of-34 passes for 269 yards. With 8:38 remaining in the game he threw his second touchdown pass as he hit Gabriel again on another screen pass outrunning pursuers and literally dived over the goal line making the score 31-13. “Just everybody being here, man, we have playmakers of all aspects. Running backs lining up at receiver and things like that,” Gabriel said. “Kyle Shanahan, him just doing the game plan — without him, without our whole offensive staff, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”
The Dome erupted, as did the Atlanta sideline. But the Cardinals weren’t through just yet.
Carson Palmer drove the Cardinals 75 yards finishing the drive off with a 3-yard pass to David Johnson, the team’s star running back. Johnson, the team’s leading rusher had trouble with Atlanta’s defense all day as he managed only 58 yards on the ground – a vast improvement for the Atlanta run defense that surrendered 208 yards to the Eagles their last time out. A missed extra point and a failed onside kick gave the Falcons a nice opportunity to really put the game away. A couple of nice passes to Mohammed Sanu including a nice midair collision as well as a personal foul put the ball deep Arizona territory. Freeman finished off the scoring from five yards out with 2:07 to play to make the score 38-19.
Palmer was intercepted near midfield by De’Vondre Campbell to cap things off for the defense that came in with bad news that star cornerback Desmond Trufant was going miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. The secondary did a nice job all day after the first series as Palmer only completed 55 percent of his passes. “I feel like we performed good,” Robert Alford said about Atlanta’s CBs. “I feel like we went out there and we executed the way we practiced this week. That’s the main emphasis: You practice how you play. And that shows on the field.”
With the win the Falcons improved to 7-4 and continue to hold a one-game lead over second place Tampa Bay and three games over last year’s NFC Super Bowl representative Carolina who lost to the Raiders 35-32.
Defense Rises Up. For only the second time all season the Falcons defense held a team to under 20 points. The 19 points allowed is the lowest points given up since they held the Broncos to 16 back in October.
Offense As Well. The 380 yards of offense by the Falcons was the largest amount surrendered by the Cardinals this season. For the sixth time this season the Falcons have scored over 30 points. Matt Ryan also kept his NFL record streak of consecutive games with 200-plus yards passing as he threw for 269.
No Bosher, No Problem. Punter Matt Bosher is out with an injury so the Falcons picked up free agent Matt Wile just before Thanksgiving. The Michigan Wolverine free agent hit punts of 57 and 59 yards as well as every kickoff was a touchback. “We were really pleased with Matt,” Quinn said. “He did a nice job on his first time.”
Razing Arizona. With the Falcons 38-19 thrashing of the Cardinals they all but eliminated a return to the playoffs for last year’s NFC Championship game participant. The Cards are 4-6-1 but remain three games behind division leader Seattle who fell falt against Tampa Bay 14-5 Sunday. Many pundits had Arizona as favorites to make the Super Bowl this year. Kind of ironic seeing the Falcons were in the same position after making the NFC Championship game in 2012 that saw them favorites to make a Super Bowl run the next season also not only missing the playoffs but a winning record.
Next Up. Five games remain this season with three at home. Sunday the Falcons remain home as they welcome the Kansas City Chiefs who are coming off an overtime win literally on the last play against the Broncos to claim sole possession of second place in the AFC West at 8-3. Kickoff is scheduled for 1pm and the game will air on CBS.
– Dave Weinthal
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