Cordarrelle Patterson, NFL’s kickoff return king, saves the Falcons

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

I don’t see the Falcons beating the Bears on Sunday if Cordarrelle Patterson didn’t return a kickoff 103 yards for a record-setting touchdown. Patterson wasn’t so sure.

“I wouldn’t say it changed the game because we were still losing, right?” Patterson said.

True, the Falcons were still behind by a field goal after Patterson’s touchdown. But they’d been sluggish for a long stretch. Patterson’s score in the second quarter didn’t just put him in the record books. It also jolted awake the Falcons and their fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during the 27-24 victory.

Patterson’s TD in the second quarter was the ninth of his career. That broke a tie with retired NFL players Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington. Patterson last scored a kickoff return TD in 2020 with the Bears. It took him 32 more attempts to break the record.

Patterson said he wanted to shed tears after finally setting the record but didn’t get the chance because his teammates mobbed him.

“They wouldn’t let me,” Patterson said. “It was good.”

Patterson’s touchdown was just what the Falcons needed. They’d been flailing as the Bears scored 17 unanswered points.

The Falcons scored a touchdown on the opening possession, but their next three drives ended with punt, punt and Patterson’s fumble. The Falcons had gifted the Bears good field position with two turnovers and a long kickoff return. Bears quarterback Justin Fields was picking on Falcons cornerback Darren Hall, who’d become a starter in Week 7 after Casey Hayward went on injured reserve.

Then came Patterson’s return TD. It was a lightning bolt that energized the Falcons and their fans.

After Patterson’s touchdown, the Falcons scored on three of their next four possessions before running out the clock on their final drive. The Falcons stopped the Bears on three straight drives after Patterson’s score. When the Bears forged a 24-24 tie, the Falcons ran 6:29 off the clock during a 12-play drive that ended with a field goal.

Patterson’s kickoff return touchdown negated his fumble on Atlanta’s previous possession. That miscue set up Chicago’s 29-yard TD drive.

“Trying to do way too much than I should and try to run people over too much and not tuck the ball,” Patterson said.

He said he was hoping he’d get the chance to immediately make amends. The opportunity came when Cairo Santos, Patterson’s former Bears teammate, kicked it to him 3 yards deep in the end zone.

“I appreciate that,” Patterson said, smiling.

There was nothing fancy about Patterson’s return. He found room in the middle of the field, cut to his left and then ran for it. Credit the blockers, Patterson said.

“There’s no way I couldn’t see that hole. Anybody could have got through that hole.”

Few players of Patterson’s size could do it. The power back who runs with so much aggression can glide once he gets going. Cornerback Elijah Hicks chased Patterson after he broke into the open field on his return. The smaller man tripped up Patterson near the goal line, but it was too late.

“I was telling some guys on the sideline, ‘Who is this guy?’” Patterson said of Hicks. “I saw he was like 10 yards back, but he caught up with me. I was like, ‘This little ‘freaker’ is fast, man.’ I’m glad he didn’t get me. The rest is history.”

The Falcons still had to take care of business so Patterson’s record wouldn’t become a footnote in a defeat. They did it by carrying the momentum from his touchdown into halftime.

The Falcons halted Chicago’s next drive when Santos missed a 56-yard field-goal try. The Falcons got the ball back with 1:10 left until halftime. Quarterback Marcus Mariota did good work on short passes to get them into field-goal range. Younghoe Koo made the 40-yard attempt to tie the score at 17.

The Falcons went ahead on Mariota’s nifty 10-yard TD late in the third quarter. The Bears tied the score again by converting four third downs on a 13-play TD drive. The Falcons answered once more, with Patterson boosting them again.

Patterson powered for a 6-yard gain on fourth-and-2 to set up Koo’s 53-yard field goal. The Bears had 1:52 left for a comeback. They advanced only 5 yards before Jaylinn Hawkins intercepted Fields’ too-high pass for David Montgomery. The Falcons had rallied for a victory behind Patterson’s record-setting kickoff return TD.

Patterson kept the ball as a memento. He said he figures the Pro Football Hall of Fame will come asking for it; for now, he planned to give it to his kids. When Patterson made it to the sideline after scoring, he bowed his head so teammate Olamide Zaccheaus could mime putting a crown on it. The NFL’s king of kickoff return touchdowns had lifted the Falcons when they were down.

Over the summer, Patterson said he’d stop returning kicks once he got the record. Is he sticking to that pledge?

“Of course, I ain’t done, man,” Patterson said, laughing. “I just said that for the media last time. I love being out there, man. That’s probably the reason I’m in this league so long. I’m just going to continue to do it.”

Patterson, 31, could keep the record for a long time. Carolina’s Andre Roberts’ three kickoff return TDs are second most among active players. Also, a rule change in 2011 moved the placement for kickoffs 5 yards closer to the end zone. That increased the number of touchbacks and reduced the frequency of returns.

Patterson didn’t return kicks as often last season once he took on a featured running back role for the Falcons. They were trying to keep him fresh. Patterson credits special teams coach Marquice Williams for giving him the “green light” to do it more this season.

“I’m not finished yet,” Patterson said. “I’ve got a lot of football left. I’m just trying to take that record and go crazy with it.”