So, maybe it is a new season.
For the second game in a row, the Falcons looked like a top-notch football operation after going 1-7 over the first half of the season.
While shaking off the rust on their turnover chain, the Falcons used four interceptions, a fierce pass rush and a dazzling punt return for a touchdown to defeat the Carolina Panthers 29-3 Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
The Falcons improved to 3-7, while the Panthers dropped to 5-5.
» MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Falcons’ defense is making plays
“A true team performance in every sense, offense, defense, special teams in complimentary football,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Those are the things that we’ve been working hard to establish. I thought on both, all three phases that guys were flying around to make plays.”
After starting 1-7, the Falcons had a bye. Quinn said that the second half was a “new season” and that they needed to play accordingly.
So far in the “new season” the Falcons have played like the team many projected.
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley led the way with eight catches for 143 yards and one touchdown. He had 146 yards as a rookie against the Saints on Sept. 23, 2018. Julio Jones had six catches for 91 yards Sunday.
“As his role is growing bigger and bigger over the last month (with the trade of Mohamed Sanu), I thought he’s responded,” Quinn said. “A big shot play today, right in the first quarter. He changed field position right off the bat. On the third-and-short play to take a shot down the field, I think it shows the chemistry that the two of them are starting to build.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 21 of 31 passes for 311 yards and one touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 111.1
“Like the NBA guy who can step back, way behind the three-point line and drain them when you need them, he threw some daggers tonight,” Quinn said.
Carolina’s Kyle Allen struggled mightily as he completed 31 of 50 passes for 325 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. He finished with a passer rating on 47.5.
The Falcons won without establishing the rushing attack, which was held to 54 yards on 26 carries with Devonta Freeman out with a foot injury.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera was quick to point out that Allen was essentially a rookie after starting just one game last season.
The Falcons did what you’re supposed to do rookies: treat them with little respect and try to confuse them.
In the first half, the Falcons sacked Allen three times and had three interceptions. Before facing Allen, the Falcons’ last interception came in Week 2 against the Eagles on Sept. 15. The Falcons had gone seven games without picking off a pass.
Linebacker DeVondre Campbell had the first interception after Takk McKinley popped the ball off Allen. Cornerback Desmond Trufant stopped a scoring threat with an interception in the end zone in the second quarter.
Down 20-0, free safety Ricardo Allen stopped another scoring threat with an interception at the 3-yard line in the final minute of the second quarter.
After a week when they had six sacks and 11 quarterback hits on elusive Saints quarterback Drew Brees, defensive end Vic Beasley, Clayborn and McKinley each had a sack in the first half. Clayborn added another in the third quarter and Allen Bailey added the fifth sack late in the fourth.
“That’s a talented defensive line,” Allen said.
McKinley injured his left shoulder on his sack, but return to the action in the third quarter.
The Falcons have 11 sacks in the past two games after getting just seven over the first eight games. They had a drought of 357 defensive snaps without a sack between the Colts game (Sept. 22) and the Seahawks game (Oct. 27).
The Falcons got off to another strong start like they did against the Saints.
The Falcons won the toss and elected to take the ball. The offense converted on one third down as they drove 55 yards over eight plays and kicker Younghoe Koo made a 38-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
After Clayborn’s interception, Koo missed a 38-yard field goal.
After an exchange of punts and sacks by Beasley and McKinley, Panthers punter Michael Parlardy out-kicked his coverage with a 60-yard punt.
Falcons returner Kenjon Barner took the ball out to his right and then cut back across the field to his left and picked up a wall of blockers.
“It had a motorcade as I like to say,” Barner said. “Once I caught the ball and came through the middle, I just saw a motorcade ahead of us and they guided me down (the field). Our guys did a great job blocking.”
Barner, a former Panther (2013 and 2019), scored on a 78-yard punt return. It was the franchise’s longest punt return for a touchdown since Deion “PrimeTime” Sanders had a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown on Oct. 28, 1990, in a 38-17 win over Cincinnati.
It was the Falcons’ first punt return for a touchdown since Devin Hester had one Sept. 18, 2014.
In the second quarter, Koo added a 23-yard field goal after an apparent touchdown pass to wide receiver Russell Gage was reversed by film review.
After another stop by the defense, the Falcons, using a 48-yard bomb from Ryan to Jones, added another touchdown. Rookie running back Qadree Ollison, on his first NFL carry, scored on a 2-yard run.
Ryan tossed a 6-yard touchdown pass to Ridley, but the Falcons’ analytics-driven two-point conversion attempt failed as the Falcons held a 26-0 lead. Ridley did a little funky end zone dance after his score.
“That was a dance for my Mom,” Ridley said. “It was her birthday today. Yes, we talked about it. It was just something she does in around the house. I just copy what she’s doing.”
The Panthers, who are built around handing the ball off to running back Christian McCaffrey and throwing a bunch of check down passes, were not capable of scoring fast enough to mount a comeback.
The Panthers added a 31-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Free safety Damontae Kazee added an interception in the fourth quarter to stop another Panthers scoring threat at the 4-yard line.
The Falcons have not given up a touchdown since they left Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf wide open in the second quarter of the 27-20 loss on Oct. 27.
Since trailing Seattle 24-0 at the half, the Falcons have outscored opponents (20-3, 26-9 and 29-3) 75-15.
“We’ve just been executing,” Trufant said. “Before we weren’t executing. Mentally and physically. Now, it’s just coming all together. We just went back to the basics. Having fun, running and hitting. It’s showing.”
The Falcons will try to keep it rolling against the Buccaneers at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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