Falcons win ‘big boy fight’ with big effort from defense

Falcons defensive back Dee Alford (37) and his teammates celebrate after Alford's fourth-quarter interception Sunday against the Browns in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons defensive back Dee Alford (37) and his teammates celebrate after Alford's fourth-quarter interception Sunday against the Browns in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

There was no palatable nervousness among Falcons fans before Younghoe Koo’s field-goal try. That came after Koo’s kick went through the goal posts, like usual, with less than three minutes to play. The cheering was muted at Mercedes-Benz Stadium even though the Falcons led the Browns by three points.

The Falcons had played good defense all game. The Falcons stopped the Seahawks to secure a road victory a week earlier. But the psyches of Falcons supporters have been scarred so badly that they figured this is where it would all fall apart.

Instead, Atlanta’s defense came through again. After Dee Alford intercepted Jacoby Brissett’s pass, the home fans finally could believe it. The Falcons beat the Browns 23-20 for their first-back-to-back wins since Weeks 8 and 9 of the 2020 season.

It was an old-school victory for the Falcons. They didn’t exactly stop Cleveland’s high-powered offense, but they forced two turnovers and halted the Browns on a fourth-and-goal. The Falcons matched that defensive effort by running through Cleveland’s defense with better run blocking than I’ve seen in a while from this team.

The Falcons make plenty of mistakes. They are limited offensively, and their defense is up-and-down. The bottom line is the Falcons are 2-2, with two losses by a combined five points and a total victory margin of seven points. We’ll see where the Falcons end up but, after four weeks, they’ve been solid.

“We’re a team, and we’ll find different ways,” coach Arthur Smith said. “We believe in these guys, and we’ve got to keep improving. These guys believe. That’s the way they work.

“We know we’ve got a huge divisional game in Tampa next week, and we’ve got to get ready.”

The Falcons will go to Tampa off a victory after their defense held Sunday. The Browns had no timeouts when they started their final drive from their 25-yard line with 2:28 to play. Cleveland made it to Atlanta’s side of the field before Grady Jarrett sacked Brissett on second down with a little more than a minute left. Alford picked off Brissett to secure the victory.

The Falcons’ defense made plenty of big plays. It seemed like it would be a long day early. The Browns had the ball first and needed less than three minutes to get into scoring range.

Cleveland gained 13, 25, 11 and 20 yards on its first four plays. Atlanta’s defense finally stiffened when Cleveland had third-and-1 at the 2-yard line. Nick Chubb tried to score around right end, but safety Richie Grant slipped through a crease and dropped Chubb for a 2-yard loss.

The Browns had fourth down 4 yards away from the end zone. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski decided to go for it. The play called for Brissett to pass. He had plenty of time to do so but no open targets. Brissett eventually gave up on the play and tossed the ball out of bounds.

The Falcons took over on downs and went on a 14-play, 84-yard drive for a field goal. It might have been a touchdown drive if officials had called a pass interference on the Browns in the end zone and a late hit against Marcus Mariota.

The Falcons got the ball back two plays later. Browns tight end David Njoku fumbled when Jaylinn Hawkins put a precision hit on the ball. Teammate Rashaan Evans recovered at Cleveland’s 31-yard line. On second down, Mariota dropped a pretty pass to Parker Hesse down the left sideline for 22 yards. Then Cordarrelle Patterson ran inside-out for a 13-yard score.

The Falcons led 10-0. They’d had the ball twice and scored both times. Cleveland’s two possessions ended with a turnover on downs and a lost fumble. The Falcons hadn’t looked this sharp since taking a big lead against the Saints in the opener. Atlanta beat the Seahawks in Week 3, but this was different. The Browns have a much more capable offense than the Seahawks, and the Falcons were shutting them down.

You knew it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. Cleveland’s offense is too good. The Falcons just had to get enough stops to win, and they did.

The Browns had 245 yards at halftime to Atlanta’s 120, yet the game was tied at 10. The Falcons got the ball coming out of halftime, but they went three-and-out. Now that familiar feeling was creeping into Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

After starting fast, the Falcons were leaking oil. They’d produced one sustained drive out of four. The Falcons forced consecutive three-and-outs by Cleveland, but the offense kept flailing.

Atlanta’s next drive ended with an interception by Mariota. It was a bootleg pass: Mariota faked a handoff to his left, then rolled right. His target, Drake London, was crossing left to right. Cornerback Denzel Ward was running even with London. Mariota tried to zip the ball to London, anyway. It was Mariota’s fourth interception of the season on just 95 attempts.

The Falcons overcame Mariota’s giveaway this time. One way they did that was not letting him pass. After the Browns turned Mariota’s interception into a field goal, the Falcons responded with 10-play touchdown drive of all running plays. Caleb Huntley, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday, had seven of those carries, including a 5-yard score.

Smith said the Falcons wanted to make a statement by running the ball when the Browns expected it. The Falcons finished with 202 yards on 35 carries with two touchdowns. Cleveland totaled 177 yards rushing on 35 tries, led by Chubb’s 118 yards on 19 carries.

“Proud of those guys,” Smith said of his offensive linemen. “Knew it would be a big boy fight. I figured the team that ran the ball better would win, and that’s how it turned out.”

The Falcons led 17-13, but the clock showed nearly 13 minutes to go. The Browns answered with Chubb’s 28-yard TD, which followed Kareem Hunt’s 20-yard run. Cleveland led 20-17 with 10 minutes left. It appeared the Falcons would stick with their plan of running and not throwing. They set up a first-and-goal on back-to-back runs of 21 yards by Avery Williams and 42 yards by Tyler Allgeier.

But then Smith joined Stefanski in making mystifying play calls. Mariota lined up in shotgun on second-and-goal and fumbled the snap. It was his fourth fumbled exchange of the season. Mariota picked up the ball and passed incomplete. The Falcons tried passing again on third down, and the result was another incompletion.

Koo’s second field goal pulled the Falcons even at 20. His third field goal put the Falcons ahead for good after they had a fourth-and-3 at Cleveland’s 27-yard line.

Said Smith: “You would love to have (a) touchdown there, but, in my opinion, in clutch situations, I’ve got my money on Koo.”

Really, Smith was betting on his defense. That’s been a losing proposition for so many Falcons losses in the past, including the season opener against the Saints. This time, relying on the defense paid off. The Falcons earned a big boy victory with a big effort from their defense.