The Atlanta Falcons still call first place home in the NFC South, as they defeated the Arizona Cardinals 29-18 Sunday in front of a less-than-spectacular crowd at the Georgia Dome.
The New Orleans Saints also won, 35-32 over the Steelers in Pittsburgh. But with Atlanta’s opening-week victory over the Saints, the Falcons still hold the advantage as both teams are now 5-7. Carolina and Tampa Bay lost, making this really a two-team race in the division.
The Falcons got the early lead on Arizona and never looked back. Quarterback Matt Ryan connected with wide receiver Julio Jones for a record-setting day, as Jones had 189 receiving yards, a new career-high. And the Falcons defense held the Cardinals to only 329 offensive yards.
Running back Steven Jackson had his first 100-yard rushing game as a Falcon, and his 55-yard run on the first drive got the Falcons off to a good start. Ryan completed the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo to get Atlanta on the board.
“The fast start was huge for us, and it was all three phases. It really was,” Ryan said. “When you get rolling like that early, and you get a little bit of a cushion to go, it makes a big difference. We continued to keep the foot on the pedal, too, and play aggressive which is a key when you’re going up against a really good football team and a really good defense.”
Then the Atlanta defense held Arizona to a three-and-out on the Cardinals’ first drive. Former Georgia Bulldog punter Drew Butler then blasted a 50-yard punt to Devin Hester, who had another tremendous run for a touchdown. It was called back, however, on a penalty as Hester grabbed Butler by the facemask. Replays showed Butler also grabbed Hester by the facemask but that penalty was not called.
Head coach Mike Smith was irate on the sideline, at the call and at special teams coach Keith Armstrong, who also lost it and was screaming at officials. Smith was careful in his words about the play after the game.
“There was a penalty. We can’t have a penalty on our sideline. I asked the official what transpired. You guys saw the replay just like I saw the replay. The flag came out and in the NFL that’s a 15-yard penalty.”
Atlanta got a field goal on that drive and then later in the first quarter Ryan hit Jones on a 32-yard touchdown pass to give the Falcons a 17-0 lead. Matt Bryant then hit four field goals the rest of the game to make the difference.
“Matt is an offensive weapon,” Smith said. “When he gets an opportunity to kick the ball on a field goal attempt, he’s going to make it. He’s got very good range for a guy that’s been in the league for a long time. Sometimes the range goes down. He has a very good, strong leg and he’s an accurate kicker. He’s helped us win a lot of football games.”
Atlanta’s defense played very well. The Cardinals are not a good running team, so there was not much damage on the ground against the Falcons (only 35 yards). But Drew Stanton, in for injured quarterback Carson Palmer, never got in a rhythm. Stanton threw two interceptions and not having the injured Larry Fitzgerald in the lineup proved costly.
“We just went out and played as a team,” said defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux. “We have faced a lot of adversity this year and it shows a lot about the character of the men of this locker room of just sticking together and playing together as one.”
Another positive for the Falcons was the running game. Atlanta had 142 rushing yards against a Cardinals team that had the third-best rush defense in the NFL coming into the game. Arizona had allowed only 84.5 yards per game on the ground through their first 11 games.
Ryan gave credit to an improving offensive line.
“Our group up front played really, really well today,” Ryan said. “They played physical. They played smart. One of the things that when you go against Arizona is they give you a bunch of different looks, and identification and making sure that you get the guys in the right spots is huge. I thought we did a great job of that up front. But I also think that they competed really, really hard and opened up some lanes for our runners. Our guys in the backfield did a fantastic job of hitting holes and getting downhill. That’s probably about as good as we’ve run it in a while, and that’s good for us moving forward.”
“We’ve been kind of one off in terms of our run game,” Smith said. ‘When we watch the tape we feel we’re one off here, one off there. This group has got five or six games under their belt. They did a very good job blocking for Steven. It was good to see Steven create that explosive play.”
Add the running game to the dangerous combination of Ryan-to-Jones and that’s why the Falcons had 500 yards offense. It proved how lethal that duo can be on offense.
“Julio had a great game today,” Ryan said. “He went out and competed really hard and made some really good catches for us. I thought he stepped up when we needed him to.”
“They had a career game,” said Smith. “It was outstanding. We felt that Julio and Matt have been real close to having this type of game. They were spot on. Julio did a great job running the routes. Matt put the ball where it needed to be.”
Smith was pleased with the most complete game the Falcons have played all season.
“When we’re consistent and play consistent football and coach consistent football, we feel like we’re a pretty good team,” he said.
The Falcons now prepare for the Green Bay Packers, arguably the best team in the NFC. The game will be played next Monday night in cold Wisconsin.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Falcons remain in first place with win
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