ATLANTA (AP) Fighting for a division title even with a losing record, the Atlanta Falcons knew they couldn’t afford another defeat.
Not after the New Orleans Saints won earlier in the day.
Led by Julio Jones, the Falcons came up with the matching victory Sunday to stay tied for first in the anemic NFC South.
Article continues below ...
Nothing weak about this showing by Atlanta, which got a career day from Julio Jones, piled up 500 yards of offense and cruised to a 29-18 victory over the punchless Arizona Cardinals, who suddenly find themselves in a bit of desperation mode.
”When we play consistent football, we can put that type of performance out there,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith, who relieved some of the heat on his job a week after taking the blame for poor clock management in a loss to Cleveland on the final play.
Jones hauled in 10 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown. Matt Ryan completed 30 of 41 for 361 yards with a couple of scores. Matt Bryant set a career high with five field goals, though most of them weren’t much longer than extra points.
The Falcons (5-7) dominated against a team that had given up less than 300 yards in each of its four previous games.
”These are the type of games you’ve got to win in November and December in order to play in January,” Ryan said.
Arizona (9-3) still leads the NFC West after its second straight loss, but now by only one game over defending Super Bowl champion Seattle. More troubling for the Cardinals, they had gone more than 11 quarters without an offensive touchdown until a meaningless score with just over a minute remaining.
Asked about his team’s struggles, coach Bruce Arias said, ”Each man has to look in the mirror and find that answer.”
Steven Jackson broke off a 55-yard run – his longest since 2009 – on the Falcons’ opening possession to set up Ryan’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo on fourth-and-goal.
Jones hauled in a 32-yard scoring pass for Atlanta’s other TD.
Bryant handled the rest of the scoring.
The Falcons remained tied for first with the Saints, who won 35-32 at Pittsburgh, and hold the tiebreaker edge. It was Atlanta’s first win outside the division (they are now 1-7) and their first over a team with a winning record.
Arizona’s Patrick Peterson said earlier in the week that he was looking forward to going against Jones, the cornerback claiming he had won the ”majority” of the battles since their days as Southeastern Conference rivals.
Not on this day.
”I just didn’t play my best game,” Peterson said. ”He made the best of his opportunities. I just came up short.”
Jones eclipsed his previous career best of 182 yards receiving and made sure the Falcons didn’t miss their other top receiver, Roddy White, who was out with an ankle injury.
”(Peterson) is a very good player. We think Julio is a really good player, too,” Ryan said. ”Julio went out and competed really hard, made some really good catches for us. He stepped up when we needed it.”
The Falcons lost a touchdown when Devin Hester’s 70-yard punt return was wiped out by an offensive facemask penalty just short of the goal line. The odd call came as he was trying to ward off Cardinals punter Drew Butler, who appeared to have an even tighter grip on Hester’s facemask.
It didn’t matter.
Not the way the Cardinals are struggling on offense with Drew Stanton at quarterback instead of Carson Palmer, who is out for the season.
It sure didn’t help that star receiver Larry Fitzgerald missed his second straight game with a strained left knee, and running back Andre Ellington went out in the first half with a hip injury.
About the only Arizona highlight came with the Falcons looking to build on their 17-0 lead after the first quarter. Rashad Johnson intercepted a pass from Ryan and went 88 yards the other way for a touchdown.
That was the Cardinals’ lone trip to the end zone until Stanton’s 3-yard pass to Stepfan Taylor with 1:05 remaining.
Notes: The Cardinals missed a chance to wipe out Jones’ longest play, a 41-yard reception in the third quarter. The replay clearly showed that Ryan only got one foot inbounds, but Arians failed to challenge the call. … Bryant’s previous career high was four field goals in a game. He connected from 20, 23, 21, 45 and 28 yards, improving to 22 of 24 on the season. His only misses have been from 57 and 59 yards. … Arizona S Tyrann Mathieu left the game with a broken thumb.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963