Falcons get dose of reality in blowout loss at Bengals

CINCINNATI — The Falcons went to Cincinnati on Sunday with three victories in their last four games. They’d provided some evidence that they might be better than a lot of people think. Those inclined to dismiss the Falcons because of the quality of opponents should look around the NFL. The Falcons are one of several middling teams trying to become something more and, bottom line, they won half of their first six games.

Then the Bengals gave the Falcons a dose of reality. Cincinnati, favored by a touchdown, won 35-17 at Paycor Stadium. The Falcons were down by three scores five seconds into the second quarter and never got the deficit below 11 points.

It was the first lopsided loss of the year for the Falcons, whose other three defeats were by a combined margin of 11 points.

“Back to work,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Obviously, credit to Cincinnati. We didn’t do a good enough job — none of us did — against a good team on the road. Thankful it only counts as one. It’s a long season.”

The Falcons (3-4) are a flawed team. They play in a division with plenty of them.

The Falcons are tied for first place in the NFC South with the Bucs, who lost 21-3 on Sunday at Carolina (2-5). Blowing that Week 1 game at home against the Saints (2-5) could end up haunting the Falcons. It leaves less wiggle room for them to lose games against opponents like Cincinnati, the defending AFC champs.

The Falcons were under duress early for the third time in seven games. The Bengals ran out to a 21-0 lead. The Rams led the Falcons 21-3 at halftime in Week 2. The Bucs were up 21-0 midway through the third quarter in Week 5. The Falcons rallied against the Bucs and Rams to lose by one score. They couldn’t get that close to the Rams because their offense fizzled after those games.

There were some common threads for the Falcons early in those games . All were on the road. The three opponents are very good defensively. The Falcons couldn’t run the ball early, which is their forte, and failed to connect on deep shots. They aren’t built to come back from deep deficits and win.

The Falcons did score 10 straight points against the Bengals to make the deficit 28-17 at halftime. Then the Falcons gained 40 yards on 20 plays in the second half. At least they’d shown some life after falling behind at Los Angeles and Tampa Bay.

“We had a different plan than we did against the Rams,” Smith said. “(The Bengals) came out similar (with) no huddle, different personnel packages. ... We’ve got to do a better job executing to stop it.”

That would be a hard task for the Falcons under the best circumstances. The challenge grew when A.J. Terrell left the game with a hamstring injury in the first quarter. He’s the team’s best cornerback. The second-best, Casey Hayward, was placed on injured reserve last week.

Quarterback Joe Burrow and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd picked on Atlanta’s thin secondary. Burrow had 425 yards passing with nearly 25 minutes of game time left. He finished with 481 yards on 34 of 43 passing with three touchdowns.

Said Smith: “Threw a lot of different looks at him and he knew where to go. He had time. There were times we got to him and even when they were off track he came back and hurt us.”

The Bengals ran the ball on just three of their first 13 plays. They’ve been a poor rushing team this season. Against the Falcons there wasn’t much need to bother with running when passing was so easy.

The Bengals scored on their fourth play when Burrow passed for 60 yards to Boyd. He was wide open after Falcons safety Richie Grant slipped while turning to run with him and the deep help was out of position. The Falcons responded by running five plays and punting. It was a typical sequence for them: Marcus Mariota scramble, two rushes by backs, two short pass attempts.

Meanwhile, Burrow kept cashing in on deep throws. The Bengals got into scoring range on their next possessions with pass completions of 22, 15 and 14 yards. Joe Mixon finished the drive with a one-yard TD run. The Bengals led by two touchdowns after running just 15 plays.

The Falcons went three-and-out before Cincinnati’s deep passing game struck again. Burrow connected with Boyd for a 20-yard gain and, two plays later, Chase snagged a 32-yard TD. The pass coverage was pretty good on that play. Burrow’s throw and Chase’s catch were just better.

That’s how it went for the Falcons a few times when they were in position to make plays on the ball. Too many other times there was no one defender close to Cincinnati’s receivers. The Bengals gained 169 yards after their 34 catches.

Said Falcons safety Grant: “There was just a lot going on. They were spreading us out, getting some quick throws. Couple of those quick throws turned into explosive plays. It’s about rallying, good tackling, good (positioning). It’s all the basics, man, the fundamentals.”

The three-touchdown hole was too deep for the Falcons to overcome. Their first TD drive lasted 16 plays and more than 10 minutes. The Bengals responded with a seven-play drive that ended with another Burrow TD pass to Chase, this time for 41 yards.

The Falcons had gained just 100 yards on 24 plays. Then, out of nowhere, they scored 10 points over the final 49 seconds of the first half. Mariota passed to Damiere Byrd for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of their next drive. That was Atlanta’s longest gain of the season.

“We can play drop back, too,” Smith said. “But the problem is in the third quarter (on) early downs, too many negative plays or one yard.”

Avery Williams returned a punt 57 yards to set up Younghoe Koo’s 43-yard field goal just before halftime. The Bengals had twice as many yards as the Falcons but led just 28-17. The visitors were getting the ball first after the break. That drive was a three-and-out for the Falcons. The next possession went the same way. The Falcons couldn’t cross midfield on four second-half possessions.

While the Falcons were struggling to move the ball, Burrow was close to setting records. His 481 yards passing were third-most in Bengals history behind Carson Palmer and Ken Anderson. It was the second-most passing yards allowed by the Falcons, topped only by Jake Plummer’s 499 yards for the Broncos in 2004. The Falcons won that game because Plummer also had three interceptions and Michael Vick totaled 367 yards without a turnover.

Today’s Falcons don’t have that kind of player on offense. They also don’t have much of a defense if they aren’t forcing turnovers, which is hard to do consistently. Despite their limitations, the Falcons won half of their first six games and lost three close ones. They got blown out in Week 7 by an opponent that exploited their weaknesses over and over again.