Falcons throttle Cardinals in a stunner

Now, finally the first-place Falcons can strut around a little bit.

After their most impressive performance of the season, a 29-18 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons improved to 5-7.

They are now a first-place team with a victory over a team with a winning record.

Go figure. It’s not much, but it’s a start back to respectability.

“It says that we can play with some of the top teams in the National Football League,” said Falcons running back Steven Jackson, who had his first 100-yard rushing game with the Falcons. “We have to believe that we are a good team. That’s all it is, confidence.”

Teams with four wins don’t normally make league-wide statements, but this may have been a mini-statement in the NFC.

“We have all the pieces that we need to make a run,” said Jackson, who had 101 yards on 18 carries. “We feel very confident that we are able to do so. It’s about playing together and believing.”

Behind the passing on Matt Ryan and Jackson, the Falcons were able to keep pace with the New Orleans Saints, who defeated Pittsburgh 35-32 to improve to 5-7, in the NFC South. Carolina dropped to 3-8-1 after losing 31-10 to Minnesota. Tampa Bay dropped to 2-10 after losing 14-13 to Cincinnati.

The Falcons finally stood up to some good competition.

Perhaps it took Arizona defensive back Patrick Peterson calling out Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. If it was not Peterson challenging Jones perhaps it was the return of safety William Moore.

Whatever happened, the Falcons opened the game with a fire that hasn’t been seen much lately.

Jones put on a clinic, catching 10 passes for a career-high 189 yards and a 32-yard touchdown. Wide receiver Harry Douglas added nine catches for 116 yards.

The victory over the Cardinals was their first win over a team with a winning record since they beat Seattle 30-28 in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs on Jan. 13, 2013.

Jones had 182 yards receiving against San Francisco in the NFC championship game on Jan. 20, 2013 and in the regular-season against St. Louis on Sept. 15, 2013.

“You better watch out when you call people out,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “You have to be ready to play. If you are going to call them out, you don’t give up the plays. It’s okay to talk, just back it up.”

Peterson’s mouth wrote a check, his quick feet and agility couldn’t cash.

Jackson ripped off a 55-yard gainer on the fourth play of the game to set the tone as the Falcons re-discovered their long-lost rushing attack. The team had gone 35 games without a 100-yard rusher.

“It was good to get the running game going today,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

After Ryan connected with Jones on third down-and-4 from their 35 for a 9-yard gain, Jackson busted over right guard for a 55-yard run down to the Cardinals’ 1. On fourth down, Ryan faked to Jackson and found tight end Levine Toilolo open in the back of the endzone for the touchdown.

After the defense held Arizona to three-and-out, Devin Hester broke loose for an apparent 70-yard touchdown return, but was called for a facemask penalty at the 2-yard line.

Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong went ballistic and drew an unsportsmanlike penalty.

Instead of being up 14-0, the Falcons found themselves with a first down-and-25 from their 32.

“We haven’t played our best ball,” Hester said. “This was the one game we came out on all phases and was hitting. We came out as a team and made plays. When we all come together as an offense, defense and special teams and make plays, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

Ryan drove them back into scoring position with a 25-yard strike to Jones. After Arizona defensive back Jerraud Powers’ apparent interception was overturned, the Falcons settled for a 20-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.

On Arizona’s next possession, free safety Dwight Lowery intercepted a Drew Stanton pass that was tipped up by wide receiver Jaron Brown.

After Lowery’s 21- yard return, the offense was back in business at Arizona’s 32. Ryan didn’t take any time and tossed a touchdown pass to Jones, who was defended Peterson. Bryant’s kick made it 17-0.

In years past, that would be deemed an insurmountable lead.

But the Falcons have made a habit of kicking away leads this season. The blew a 21-0 lead against Detroit and a 20-10 lead against the New York Giants. They also lost a 16-3 against Carolina and needed a late field goal by Bryant to pull out a 19-17 win.

But this time, they weren’t in such a giving mood.

“The games in the NFL, they’re games that can change very quickly,” Smith said. “Momentum swings happen. I thought we did a very good job after we threw the interception that was returned for a touchdown. We didn’t allow them to keep the momentum that they had for that one specific play.”

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