The Falcons were essentially stuck in a win-or-go-home situation, and they triumphed over Chicago to keep their 2022 season alive.
The Falcons needed and wanted a win at home against Chicago. Their triumph in this game featured a few highlight reel plays, but wound up being mostly a hard-fought and gritty win, one where they bogged down a productive Bears offense and eked out a close victory. It was, in so many ways,
You can credit the defense. Atlanta allowed Fields to have a fine day on the ground and through the air, but crucially did not allow him to destroy them the way he has so many teams in 2022. The Falcons had an effective gameplan for limiting the damage Fields could do, and just needed to do enough on offense to squeak out a win. With Marcus Mariota managing a turnover-free, relatively efficient performance where he delivered just 156 combined yards but scored twice, plus Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson combining for over 100 yards, the Falcons got the job done on that side of the ball. Add in Patterson’s electric kick return touchdown and it’s not a huge surprise the Falcons whipped up a win.
The relative lack of damage and dominance from the offense, plus the tackling-related lapses on defense and special teams, ensures that we can’t definitively say the early season Falcons are back and better than ever. What we can say is that faced with an opponent they matched up fairly well against and with a win absolutely necessary to avoid fans looking forward to draft season, they gutted one out, which in turn is about what we can feel comfortable asking for from a limited roster and working-through-it coaching staff. The wins and the ability to scrap and scrape should serve them well next year when the talent level should be upgraded and they run into tough opponents along the way, and given that progress and a more cohesive vision were the big asks from this team in 2022, a rally and win after a 1-3 stretch is a big deal.
Beating a Bears team that has been effective on offense and barely passable on defense by a 27-24 score should not convince you that better days are ahead, as I’ve alluded. The Falcons squandered third down chances, allowed far too many third downs to be converted, and were even shaky on special teams outside of the huge Cordarrelle Patterson return and an absolutely nails field goal from Younghoe Koo. They won by a narrow margin because they made a handful of plays the Bears couldn’t make, which tells you the line between the two teams is thin. The important thing, of course, is that the line exists.
What should you take away from this game, then? The Falcons are unevenly and unsteadily making progress in the ways that count—their ability to worm their way to a close win, their ability to bounce back from tough weeks and tough plays, and their ability to take away an offense’s strengths in particular—and that inconsistency means they may well fall short of relevance by the end of 2022. Given that most of us had justifiably modest expectations for this season, the team’s ability to battle back against comparable teams and hang in there with good teams—we’re going to ignore the Bengals, here—is a positive sign for the future. So long as 2023 is much better than 2022, we’ll take the uneven season to this point. We’ll certainly take a win over a Bears team that many of us feared would run all over Atlanta’s hapless defense, and the progress on that side of the ball in a situation where they had to dig deep to have the Falcons win is probably the story of the day.
On to the full recap.
- Cordarrelle Patterson deserves first billing for making some history. While Patterson was outgained by Tyler Allgeier on offense and had a fumble—we’ll get to that later—he also had the play of the game on a 103 yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
That play not only made Patterson the NFL record holder for touchdowns on kickoff returns, an incredible achievement that may help punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame someday, but it also erased the damage done by his fumble just a few plays earlier. With effective blocking and the kind of possessed running you’d expect to see from a legendary returner hoping to put a fumble behind him, Patterson swung the game in a way he has quite a few times in the past. Given that he was also stone solid on the ground in this one minus the fumble, it was a great game for a fan favorite.
- Marcus Mariota needed to rebound after two shaky weeks in a row, especially with the team all but saying outright that his continued grip on the starting job depends on the Falcons remaining in the playoff hunt. To his credit, Mariota largely did just that.
The question with Mariota, in my opinion, is never about what he can do but what he will do on a given Sunday. Against the Bears, he looked very much like the best version of himself much of the day, overcoming a handful of missed throws and delivering some sharp passes, making plays on the run, and piling managing a couple of nice runs and a score with his legs. He finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on a 13/20 day through the air, plus 25 yards on 13 carries and another touchdown. There’s nothing overly impressive about those numbers, but the touchdown scramble was a beaut and the back corner of the end zone throw to Drake London for a touchdown with a hand in his face was a legitimately impressive play, and he avoided the kinds of mistakes that have doomed this team in the recent past. If he can chain together some performances here—I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again—Atlanta will remain in the hunt with him at the helm.
- Tyler Allgeier had another terrific day, and not just as a runner. He picked up an easy first down on his first carry, showcasing physicality and quickness, and he also came up with a critical block on third down on the opening drive to give Mariota a fighting chance at a first down pass. He finished with a crisp, team-leading 55 yards on just eight carries, adding nine yards on a reception, and has made it clear he intends to be a major part of this backfield going forward.
- That touchdown to Drake London was a pretty ball by Mariota, but credit to the rookie for being aware of his surroundings and hauling it in for his fourth touchdown grab of the year.
- On yet another day where the Falcons didn’t pass much—just 20 attempts for Mariota—the supporting cast held up again. Olamide Zaccheaus had a nice run and a customary clutch grab, Damiere Byrd was a reliable target, and Kyle Pitts reeled in three balls for 43 yards before he was injured. There are few standouts in a passing game that simply isn’t built to chuck it all day, but things work smoothly when everyone on the field is contributing, and that happened again.
- Credit to Chuma Edoga, who was something like the fourth starting left guard on the season and held his own minus a penalty. At this point I have absolutely no idea who is going to start at left guard a week from now—will Jalen Mayfield be ready? will Edoga keep the job?—but the Falcons certainly have options next year if they don’t want to make a big swing at upgrading the position.
- The Falcons pass rush, often more of a concept than an actual thing, ended up being impactful on Sunday. After coming into the day with 13 sacks, the Falcons left the game one sack shy of their 2021 tally with 17, having taken down Justin Fields four times. Abdullah Anderson had one, rookie Arnold Ebiketie a second, Lorenzo Carter a third, and Grady Jarrett a fourth, and the pressure helped limit Fields and slow the Bears offense all day. More of that, please.
- I’d like to single Ebiketie out because he’s gotten close so many times, and I’ve seen the complaints about praising a player who doesn’t quite get there. Ebiketie has the kind of promise that suggest he could be this team’s most impactful pass rusher over the long haul, and games like this where he shows it by piling up pressures and getting a sack are welcome.
- Lorenzo Carter may have missed Justin Fields once or twice—understandable given his speed—but he also had an incredibly impactful run of plays on the third Bears drive of the game in the second quarter. At his best, Carter is fast and physical (I’m sorry) in a way that is difficult for other teams to contend with, and he was a nuisance for the Bears in this one.
- Grady Jarrett was insanely disruptive, nearly got an interception, picked up a sack against Fields, and generally looked like the best defender on the field for either team. He’s always terrific, but when the Falcons are overwhelmed on defense, he’s usually the guy who steps up and makes a really good lemonade out of some very rotten lemons. The Falcons don’t win this game without him being such a problem for the Bears.
- A.J. Terrell’s return was welcome. As he so often is, Terrell was impactful in coverage, but he also delivered some bone-jarring hits, including one on Cole Kmet that would’ve knocked the ball out of just about anyone else’s hands. The Falcons defense is much better when he’s out there.
- Jaylinn Hawkins seemingly has a knack for coming up with game-changing plays. In this one, it was the late interception on a Fields heave that looked extremely labored, a pick that set up Atlanta to get a first down, run out the clock, and ultimately win the game.
- Younghoe Koo has been more up-and-down than we’re accustomed to in 2022, but great kickers iron those wrinkles out over a full season. Koo did it again in this one, putting up two field goals and three extra points and banging home a 53 yarder that proved to be the margin of victory. So often over the past three years, the Falcons have effectively put the game in his hands (cleats?), and Koo has a habit of delivering.
- The Falcons came into this game needing a win and knowing what they had to do to win: Take advantage of the Chicago defense and stop Fields. It wasn’t a perfect game plan and the offense in particular looked liked it was in danger of not carrying its end of the bargain, but given what Chicago had done in recent weeks, the defense in particular held up its end of the bargain. The Falcons held Fields under 100 yards on the ground, held him to a survivable 153 yards through the air, and forced a turnover while almost grabbing a second one. You’re not going to get perfection in the NFL, and it was a delight to see a much-maligned Falcons defense doing the hard work of stopping one of the most explosive players in the NFL.
- The defense figured to be in for a long day, and early on, it looked like it. The opening drive featured a basically uncontested Justin Fields scramble, missed tackles on David Montgomery runs, and an effective pick play that got Darnell Mooney open in the end zone for a touchdown. It was a credit to them and Dean Pees that they rallied.
The missed tackles were the only thing I’d like to harp on, because it helped contribute to a very solid if not spectacular day from Fields and David Montgomery. The duo combined for 152 yards and two touchdowns, but Montgomery in particular hit a wall several times, and some whiffed opportunities converted into tackles would’ve made this day a little shorter and a little less tense. The Falcons were fortunate not to have to deal with Khalil Herbert, as well.
- Offensively, I don’t think anything was really figured out, which is the only lasting sour note from this game. Mariota had a strong game but still missed multiple throws, the ground game was effective but not game-changing, and overall Atlanta put up just two offensive touchdowns and a pair of field goal drives, translating to 20 points. Combined, they had just 280 yards (the Bears, for comparison’s sake, had 288 yards and three offensive scores) and may not have escaped this one with a win if not for Patterson’s huge return.
That was enough against the Bears, but I think we could see the offense put forth similar production in the next couple of weeks and actually lose, which of course flips our perspective on how well Atlanta did. The Falcons can’t be dependent on a huge day from the defense to win weekly, and after seeing that sentiment typed out, I’m sure you agree.
- The fumbles could have killed Atlanta Sunday. Avery Williams tried to stretch for a yard on a punt return and fumbled, and then Cordarrelle Patterson fumbled violently and had it picked up by Chicago in the second quarter. That set the Bears up to score points and get a lead, which they did. Fortunately, those will be lost to time a bit because of Atlanta’s excellent rally and recovery, but it’s fair to say the Falcons probably aren’t losing a pair of fumbles and winning all that often.
Grady Jarrett, who nearly had a pick, did manage a sack, and frequently caused problems for a Bears offense that never entirely found its balance. The veteran defensive tackle continues to be a force for good in Atlanta.
This was a huge game for the defense, which managed to hold Chicago to a modest point total and slow Justin Fields despite our legitimate doubts they’d do either. Credit to Dean Pees and the defense for a job well done, and one big takeaway is that the defense is capable of an effort like that.
The Washington Commanders, who are solid but unspectacular and gaining team, which will make them an interesting challenge for a Falcons team that has mostly played lousy squads over the past four weeks.