Falcons look to halt slide against Cardinals
Few teams are out of contention in the wide-open NFC playoff chase, but two of the teams on the outside will square off Sunday in a matchup that has more implications for position in next year’s draft.
The Atlanta Falcons, who have tumbled into oblivion in the wake of a five-game losing streak, will try to end their slide against the visiting Arizona Cardinals.
With little to play for after watching his team absorb a knockout punch in last week’s lackluster loss at Green Bay, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn went to the video archives and had his players view a championship boxing match from 2001, when upstart Hasim Rahman handed Lennox Lewis his first loss in seven years.
“The reason I wanted to show them that fight is here’s two fighters who are ready, but one had better focus in the moment and that was Rahman,” Quinn said. “He ended up knocking him out. Both of them were good fighters, but one on that night had better focus.”
The players were receptive to the presentation, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan told reporters.
“It’s a really good message,” Ryan said. “The fight is one thing, but the focus and the intent and being into it and being prepared and all those things are just as important. I thought it was a really good message to the guys and one that we responded to well.”
Atlanta and Arizona have combined for seven wins so there are no championship belts on the horizon, although there will be a heavyweight matchup of sorts within the game when two of the league’s best players at their respective positions go head-to-head.
Falcons superstar wide receiver Julio Jones will be matched up against perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson for only the fourth time during their pro careers, but they have a rivalry dating to their college days in the Southeastern Conference.
Peterson hasn’t allowed a single wide receiver to finish with 80 or more receiving yards in a game since Jones went off for 10 receptions and 189 yards with a touchdown during the 2014 season. Peterson got the better of Jones in the other two matchups that sandwiched that game. Jones had a pedestrian three catches for 33 yards and no touchdowns in 2012 and and was held to four receptions for 35 yards and no touchdowns in 2016.
“They’ve been going at it for a while,” Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea said. “Two of the best players at their position in the league, so it’s definitely going to be a dogfight and it’s going to be fun to be out there while it’s happening.”
Both players are in their eighth season after entering the NFL together in 2011. Peterson was the fifth overall pick out of LSU, and Jones, who played at Alabama, was taken by Atlanta with the very next selection.
“I think it’s going to be a great matchup,” Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks said. “You’re talking about two of the best at their position. Who knows? Those two guys could be future Hall of Famers. It’s going to be a great contest. I know Patrick is excited about — I don’t want to call it a challenge — but the opportunity to be able to cover Julio.”
Jones caught eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the 34-20 loss in Green Bay. He became the first player in NFL history with five straight seasons of 1,400 yards or more and tied his own franchise record with his ninth 100-yard game this year. Peterson ranks second among NFL cornerbacks, allowing 25 catches to wide receivers this season.
“Those two players for me through the years, I certainly admire a lot based on their styles, attitudes and how they play,” Quinn said. “(Julio) and Pat, that’ll provide for some really good ball.”
Ryan went over 4,000 passing yards for the eighth consecutive season after throwing for 396 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against the Packers. For the season, Ryan has 28 scoring passes against six interceptions.
Arizona rookie Josh Rosen’s numbers pale in comparison. The Cardinals have the league’s worst offense, rank last in passing yards (158.3) and average a league-low 13.7 points. Rosen also is playing behind an offensive line that has been ravaged by injury, featuring five starters who were not starters when training camp began.
“I think Josh is getting valuable reps, and I’ve said that before. He can’t get enough,” Wilks said. “I think it is an opportunity for him to continue to grow and progress towards next year.”