This time, with the bright national TV lights shining on them, the Falcons didn’t mess around with a team holding a losing record.
After sleepwalking for a half against Carolina on the previous Sunday in a network game, they pounced on the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and didn’t let up, winning 41-14 on Thursday night before 68,856 at the Georgia Dome and an NFL Network audience.
“Playing on a short week in the NFL is never an easy proposition,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “But I really felt like out team handled it very well. I think it showed the way that they worked in the ball game. We started fast and I thought that we playe well for most of the ball game.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones put on a passing clinic, and the defense, led by veteran defensive end John Abraham, throttled the Jaguars’ offense and its rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
White finished with 10 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The had five pass plays of 20 yards or more — their definition of an explosive play — to gave them 51 for the season. The teams has 60 explosive, including nine runs of 20 yard of more. Two of the explosive plays went for touchdowns.
“When you take shots down the field, you just have to keep taking them,” Ryan said. “It’s like a shooter in basketball. Shooters keep shooting. In order to make it, you have to take those chances. They come in spurts.”
Through 13 games, they have 46 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks ninth overall in the league. Quarterback Matt Ryan has eight plays that have gone for 40 yards or more, which ranks him tied for eighth in the league.
The victory clinched the Falcons’ fourth consecutive winning season under head coach Mike Smith. Before he was hired in January of 2008, the Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons.
Counting the second-half points the Falcons (9-5) needed to beat the Panthers 31-23, the Falcons scored 65 unanswered points over the two games. The Jaguars (4-10) ended that string, by returning a blocked punt for a touchdown with 2:12 to make it 41-7.
The Falcons, who don’t play again until they face the New Orleans Saints in a Monday night game on Dec. 26, can sit back and watch the next two Sundays and their playoff possibilities unfold. They entered week 15 as the No. 5 seed.
They could still catch the Saints (10-3) to win the NFC South, but it’s not likely. New Orleans plays the faltering Minnesota Vikings (2-11) on Sunday and needs one win to wrap up the division.
Realistically, the Falcons are in a battle for one of the wild-card spots with Detroit (8-5), Chicago (7-6), New York Gaints (7-6) and Dallas (7-6).
Ryan was razor sharp as he completed 19 of 26 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns in less than three quarters of action. He finished with a passer rating of 137.7, the second-highest rating of his career. He had a 138.4 passer rating in a 24-0 victory over the Oakland Raiders as a rookie.
The Atlanta offense jumped all over the Jaguars, marching 75 yards in seven plays to score the first time. Ryan tossed a short pass to Jones, who raced 29 yards through the Jacksonville secondary for the touchdown.
Ryan completed 4 of 4 passes for 57 yards during the drive and his pass to Jones was the 90th touchdown pass of his career. The touchdown pass also extended his string of throwing at least one touchdown pass to 13 games. He’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in 28 of the Falcons’ last 29 games.
When the Falcons defense took the field for the first time, Abraham sacked Gabbert on first down, setting the tone.
Abraham earlier said he missed three sack opportunities against Houston and Carolina. He took it out on Jacksonville’s line. Rookie Cameron Bradfield had a particularly tough time with Abraham and his backup, Kroy Biermann.
Abraham finished with three and half sacks, the second-best, single-game total of his career.
His biggest sack came early in the third quarter. On Jacksonville’s first possession of the second half, Abraham taught the Jaguars’ rookie quarterback a little something about ball security. He put a spin move on Bradfield, sacked and stripped Gabbert. Defensive end Corey Peters scooped up the loose ball and ran it in for a 13-yard touchdown.
“In the middle of the year I was kind of off because I was injured,” Abraham said. “I was having a slow year. Right now, I’m feeling 100 percent. My groin is back where it needs to be and I think I’m showing it now on the field.”
The Falcons blew the game open in the second quarter. After linebacker Sean Weatherspoon recovered a fumbled punt, Michael Turner bowled into the end zone untouched from 5 yards out to make it 17-0.
White added a 6-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Abraham sacked Gabbert and forced a fumble with under a minute left to halftime, and Curtis Lofton hustled to recover the ball. That set up a 31-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
“As a defense, you want to get turnovers,” Lofton said. “You want to get our offense back out of the field as mush as possible. That’s what we did today. Abe showed up big for us. They couldn’t stop him. They really couldn’t stop the defensive line today.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog