Forget it. The Atlanta Falcons’ once promising season is in tatters.
“This is devastating,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said.
To a man, the Falcons had anticipated continuing a climb to .500 here in the desert Sunday, but were resoundingly flipped on their backs by the Arizona Cardinals 27-13 at University of Phoenix Stadium. Now 2-5, they appear out of answers.
“This puts us way behind the eight ball as far as the playoffs are concerned,” said Gonzalez, pausing before boarding the team bus. “I think our more immediate concern is winning a game against a good team. It was good that we got the win (against Tampa Bay) last week, but the Buccaneers haven’t even won a game this year.”
Arizona veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and rookie running back Andre Ellington, a sixth-round pick from Clemson, led the charge as the Cardinals, scoring 20 unanswered points in the second and third quarters, improved to 4-4 under first-year coach Bruce Arians.
Ellington rushed for 154 yards on 15 carries. Palmer was 13-of-18 for 172 yards passing and two touchdowns.
The Falcons, seeking a boost from the return of running back Steven Jackson, rushed for just 27 yards. In the NFC South, the New Orleans Saints improved to 6-1 with a victory over Buffalo and have a nearly insurmountable lead with nine games to play.
“We have to bounce back though, but that’s all there is to,” said Gonzalez, who caught three passes for 26 yards. “It’s tough. It’s disappointing because it wasn’t even close today. It wasn’t even competitive. But we didn’t give up though.”
After reaching the NFC title game last season, the Falcons coaxed Gonzalez out of retirement in order to make another Super Bowl run. After this shaky start, they have to realistically reconsider their expectations.
Something simple, like rushing for 100 yards again and keeping quarterback Matt Ryan alive. He was sacked four times and hit 11 times on his way to a four-interception game and a passer rating of 47.2. Forced to throw on 77 percent of the Falcons’ 79 plays, he completed 34-of-61 attempts for 301 yards.
“We have to continue to dig and dig out of the hole that we are in,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Will Gonzalez be around much longer? The trading deadline is at 4 p.m. on Tuesday and a persistent rumor is that the Falcons might trade him back to Kansas City, which improved to 8-0 on Sunday.
“It’s up to them,” Gonzalez said. “If that’s what they want to do and that’s in the best interest of the team, then that’s up to them. It isn’t going to come from me. I’m not the one asking for a trade. I love Atlanta. I love playing with these guys.”
Gonzalez appears sincere and was already talking about facing the Carolina Panthers next Sunday.
“We have Roddy (White) coming back next week so I’m a little bit more optimistic,” Gonzalez said. “I’m tired of getting double-teamed. I’m not going to lie.”
Things started to go sideways for the Falcons early. They failed to score touchdowns on three trips inside the Cardinals’ 30-yard line in the first half. A sack pushed them out of field goal range on one drive and they had to settle for two field goals and trailed 21-6 at the half.
With the Falcons’ offense stalling, the Cardinals eventually started to gash the defense with big plays. A 51-yard reception by Teddy Williams and a 80-yard touchdown run by Ellington helped them build the 15-point lead.
The Cardinals’ hard-charging defense took over from there. Jackson had just six yards rushing on 11 carries. Ryan, who wound up Atlanta’s leading rusher with 13 yards on one scramble, was hard-pressed for a miracle comeback after falling behind 27-6 with 8:40 to play.
The game’s key play came midway through the second quarter. Ellington took a simple handoff and veered into the middle before bouncing it outside to his right and into a wide open patch of green. He raced 80 yards for the score and Jay Feely’s extra point made it 14-6.
The stunned Falcons’ offense was held to a three-and-out and Palmer put the Cardinals right back on the move. This time, he got some help from Falcons rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, who was called for defensive holding on Larry Fitzgerald and face mask penalties on consecutive plays, advancing the ball to the Falcons’ 35-yard line.
Four plays later, Palmer threw a 15-yard scoring pass to Michael Floyd 1:55 before halftime and Cardinals claimed control.
The Falcons’ defense gave up more than 100-yards rushing for the fourth consecutive game, yielding a season-high 201 yards. New England (132 yards), New York Jets (118) and Tampa Bay (111) all had success running the football.
Up next for the Falcons are the Carolina Panthers (4-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday in Charlotte.