Falcons were fun again and that counts for something

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones celebrates intercepting Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen and returning it for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 during the first quarter on Sunday, Dec 16, 2018 in Atlanta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones celebrates intercepting Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen and returning it for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 during the first quarter on Sunday, Dec 16, 2018 in Atlanta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Vic Beasley (remember him?) tipped a pass, Deion Jones caught it and ran it back 41 yards for a Falcons score. Soon Tevin Coleman had a long run (remember those?) to set up more points. It wasn’t long before a strip-sack, one of a season-high seven sacks, led to another touchdown.

In one hour on Sunday the Falcons were more fun than they’d been during the previous five weeks. The Falcons smiled and danced along with their fans. Coach Dan Quinn, morose on the sideline for so long, had some of those fist-pumping frenzies we’d seen frequently during better times.

The Falcons beat down the Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to end their losing streak at five games. The Falcons aren't going to the playoffs, but they also didn't go in the tank. This was their best performance of the season, and they've got two more games (at Carolina and Tampa Bay) to show it's not an aberration.

Cynics will note that the Falcons finally delivered a great performance on the same day they were officially eliminated from playoff contention. But they were favored by nine points against Arizona and won by 26. That has to count for something, especially since we’d all be piling on if this had gone the other way.

If nothing else, the Falcons finally gave their fans some bang for their buck in the final home game of this season.

“Coming in here laughing and smiling, it’s been a while,” cornerback Desmon Trufant said while standing in a winning Falcons home locker room for the first time since Oct. 22.

Before Sunday, the last happy moment for the Falcons was a month ago. That’s when Julio Jones hauled in that sweet pass from Matt Ryan that put the Falcons ahead of the Cowboys with two minutes left. That’s when it looked like the collapse in Cleveland was a one-off, instead of the beginning of the Falcons’ fade.

This victory over Arizona doesn’t mitigate the disappointment of a losing season. It did provide more evidence that the Falcons may have finally figured out an effective running game. The pass rush has improved, too, with much of the punch provided by Beasley, Grady Jarrett and mid-season addition Bruce Irvin.

The Falcons won for the first time since Week 9 at Washington. That game and this one are the only two weeks this season the Falcons looked like a complete team. I don’t want to hear about the Cardinals being bad because, well, did you see the Falcons over the past five weeks?

During that time the Falcons weren’t just losing. They were a sad and dreary team. They were confused and mystified.

On Sunday they were energized, confident and crisp.

“It's been a tough stretch on everyone - the team, the fans, all of us,” Quinn said. “But I think it shows a lot about the resiliency of the men inside the locker room (and) how important it is to them to play well here for one another for this city, for this team. And so I was real proud to see that from them tonight.”

All those things have been in doubt about the Falcons. Their pattern had been to show no light at all, or have it extinguished just as soon as it appeared.

The Falcons never lead at New Orleans and had more fumbles than touchdowns. They led early against Baltimore but the Ravens scored the next 19 points. The Falcons were up 7-0 at Green Bay last week before the Packers reeled off 34 points in a row.

They seemed headed for another moribund day against the Cardinals, who have a decent defense but the league’s worst offense.

The Falcons got the ball first and punted after a penalty wiped out a first-down conversion. Then Cardinals running back David Johnson beat Jones for a 40-yard catch. After two red-zone penalties pushed the Cardinals backward, Johnson converted a third-and-15 with another reception before scoring a one-yard TD run.

The Falcons responded with a three-play drive for minus-six yards. Fans booed a little when Ryan’s first-down pass fell incomplete, a little more when Coleman ran for no gain and even louder when Haason Reddick sacked Ryan.

A bad punt put the Cardinals at their 43 and I thought, Here the Falcons go again. Not this time, though.

On second down, Beasley couldn’t get to Josh Rosen but watched the rookie quarterback’s eyes. He batted Rosen’s pass high in the air. Beasley couldn’t find the ball, but Jones ran under it and took it to the house.

“They gave us some hype, they gave us some energy to go out there and fight,” Coleman said.

After the Falcons stopped the Cardinals again, Coleman broke off a 65-yard run (longest for the Falcons in 30 games) to set up a field goal. Arizona’s next drive ended on Jarrett’s strip-sack, and the Falcons cashed that in for another TD. A third Falcons takeaway, Brian Poole’s interception, led to another touchdown before halftime.

The Falcons ended up scoring 40 straight points after falling behind. Their defense was the catalyst. Arizona gained 3.9 yards per play and converted 3 of 13 third-down chances.

“It was us getting back to being ourselves and having fun,” Jones said.

“I thought our identity was clearly on display,” Quinn said.

I’m not sure about the Falcons finding their true selves because what is that, exactly? Early-season injuries to key players (including Jones) cost the defense much of its talent. As the Falcons sorted out their defense , their famed offense fell flat.

But there’s no doubt the Falcons got back to having fun against the Cardinals. They were flat for just a moment, and then they were exciting, entertaining and everything they hadn’t been during this sad season.