Four Downs: Falcons win clash of first-place teams by routing Arizona

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones set a new career high with 189 receiving yards in a win against the Arizona Cardinals.

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — By virtue of a 29-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the Atlanta Falcons moved to 5-7 on the season and kept their edge in the NFC South over the New Orleans Saints, who were also victorious on Sunday.

Atlanta posted 500 yards of total offense and held a huge advantage in the time-of-possession battle. The Falcons’ offense was on the field for 37:03 in the win, compared to 22:57 for Arizona.

Here are four other observations from Atlanta’s win at home over Arizona:

Some will say that with Roddy White sidelined, Julio Jones had to step up and have a big game in order for the Falcons to beat the Cardinals. Others will say that when Jones set a new career high for receiving yards, he did so without the benefit of White on the opposite side of the field drawing attention away from Jones’ efforts.

Jones caught 10 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. His 189 yards receiving were seven better than his previous best, an 11-catch game against the St. Louis Rams last season.

"They had a career game. It was outstanding," said head coach Mike Smith. "We felt like Julio and Matt have been real close to having this type of game, and they were spot on. Julio did a great job of running the routes, and Matt put the ball where it needed to be. When we’re consistent and play consistent football, coach consistent football, we feel like we’re a pretty good team."

There’s been little doubt that Jones has the ability, and upside, to become one of the best receivers in the NFL. But injuries, and some lackluster offensive output on the part of Atlanta over the last two seasons, have keep Jones from reaching the elite level.

Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, who said he was the best corner in the league this week on a conference call with the media, welcomed the opportunity to face off against Atlanta’s top receiver. He said he wanted to cover the best each team had to offer.

Peterson had no answers for Jones. He was dominated by the fifth-year pass-catcher who eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second time in his career. At 1,169 yards receiving this season, Jones is 30 yards shy of setting a new career mark for yards in a season.

And he’s close to stepping into that elite club.

The defense played a stellar game on Sunday. Take away eight Arizona points in garbage time, and the Falcons defense allowed just three points to the Cardinals.

While the defense was key, so was the play of the offensive line.

Matt Ryan was sacked just once on his way to throwing for 361 yards on 73.2 percent passing. Steven Jackson rushed for 101 and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. The Falcons carried the ball 34 times as a team and gained 142 yards on the ground.

And Arizona owned the third-ranked run defense in the NFL prior to Sunday, giving up just 84.5 rushing yards per game.

"I think our group up front played really, really well," said Ryan. "They played physical, they played smart. One of the things when you go up against Arizona, they give you a bunch of different looks. Identification and making sure you get the guys in the right spot is huge. We did a great job of that up front, but I also think they competed.

"They opened up some lanes for our runners, and our guys in the backfield did a fantastic job of getting downhill. That’s probably about as good as we’ve run it in a while. That’s good for us moving forward."

Atlanta’s offensive line has been much maligned this season, and injuries have hurt both continuity and cohesion. When games come like Sunday’s amplified effort, building blocks are laid. If the offensive line can work with those blocks, this Falcons offense can be much better as the regular season winds down.

Be honest. Given Bryant’s four-year run with the red-zone challenged Buccaneers (2005-08), you figured the dead-eye kicker had booted five field goals in the same game — prior to Sunday.

Right? Wrong.

On the same day that Julio Jones posted a career-high 189 yards and Steven Jackson became the first tailback to rush for 100 yards against the Cardinals this season, Bryant stole a little bit of the spotlight by going 5 for 5 against Arizona — connecting from 20, 21, 23, 28 and 45 yards.

OK, so none of Bryant’s kicks were all that taxing (distance-wise); and if Atlanta had somehow squandered this crucial game — especially after racing to a 17-0 lead in the first half — perhaps we’d be lamenting the Falcons’ inability to produce touchdowns on four red-zone drives.

But all negatives get swept away in victory, especially against the NFC’s best team (although Arizona, Green Bay and Philadelphia are tied at 9-3), meaning that Bryant was happy to compensate for the Falcons’ lack of pizzazz near the goal line.

In case you’re wondering, Bryant (285 field goals, including the playoffs) has accounted for four field goals 10 times in his distinguished career (2002-14); and of the last four games, the 39-year-old boasts a perfect 14 for 14 from the hashes.

But until Sunday, he had never hit the hallowed 5-spot in a single outing.

Given the NFL’s hyper-sensitivity to the safety and well-being of ball carriers — particularly quarterbacks and receivers — it was refreshing to see the Falcons-Cardinals crew exercise proper perspective on Moore’s hit, the final play before the 2-minute warning.

Was it brutal blow? Yes.

Was the crunching hit made around that vague shoulder-high area? Yes.

Would it have surprised anyone if a flag had been thrown against Moore? Uh, no.

But that’s the point we’re making here: Vicious, brutal blows can still be clean and legal, especially when the receiver — in this case, Jaron Brown (seven catches, 75 yards vs. Atlanta) — sees the oncoming safety charging hard, and thus, has time to brace for impact.

As part of that, Brown got low to the ground, in an attempt to avoid Moore’s hit — which might explain why it finished near the head area. But once again, since Brown had some time (maybe two or three Moore strides) to prepare for the hit … it probably allowed him to avoid significant injury.

Which brings us to this: No one wants to see players get hurt or sustain needless head trauma that hinders a person for years to come — long after they’ve retired. But this is a brutal game; and for one singular play, it was cool to see the officials adroitly define the differences between a crushing tackle and taking advantage of a defenseless receiver.