ATLANTA - The Red Rifle went shot-for-shot with Matty Ice in Sunday's first half that was as shoot-out advertised with no punts when quarterback Andy Dalton hit 14 of 16 passes for 211 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating to stake the Bengals to a 28-24 half-time lead.
But the second half started soberly for the Bengals when tight end Tyler Eifert suffered a gruesome right ankle injury and as he was carted off with 50 seconds gone in the third quarter, it appeared as if he had suffered his third straight season-ending injury. His devastated teammates took a knee during a heart-breaking 10-minute gap. It happened on his fourth catch of the game and he had scored his first TD of the season earlier in the day.
Dalton had to fire because Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan converted eight of nine third downs on his way to 18 of 24 passing for 218 yards and a 130.8 rating. And that last third down on third-and-four for 13 yards to the alert Julio Jones going out-of-bounds with nine seconds left in the half allowed Matt Bryant to kick a 55-yarder to end it. It was the 13th time in the last 20 games the Bengals allowed points in the final two minutes of the half.
But the Falcons got the ball back with 44 seconds only after the Bengals finished off a 4-for-4 first half when running back Giovani Bernard scored his second touchdown of the game on a one-yard run. It was Bernard (three catches for 30 yards and six runs for 26 in the half) that set it up when he rambled for 14 yards to the 1 when Dalton safety-valved it to him against the rush.
That drive went like all the rest with Dalton scalding Atlanta's deep zone underneath. Green and Boyd picked up first downs on slants and Eifert got nine more as three Bengals had at least three catches and none were A..J. Green.
But Green (2 catches for 49 yards) had the second longest play of the half, a 38-yard third-down killer. In Green's showdown with Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, Jones had five catches for 80 yards and Sanu added 64 yards on four catches. But Green and teammate John Ross had the biggest plays of the half.
After a pre-game chat with Bengals all-time leading receiver Chad Johnson, the embattled Ross got loose out of the slot and no one covered him for a 39-yard TD that Bengals a 21-14 lead with 8:11 left in the second quarter.
For the second time in the half Atlanta tied it, this time with 2:55 left when rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley got inside on cornerback William Jackson on a skinny post for an 11-yard touchdown. It came on, what else? Third down. It was the seventh time on eight third-down tries the Falcons gouged the NFL's third-down defense.
It was fitting. It was Sanu's 10-yard catch on third-and-seven that kept the drive going when cornerback Darqueze Dennard blitzed off the slot and Ryan found Sanu in the vacated area. On the next snap, Ryan went play-action and hit Sanu for 36 more when he got between Jackson and safety Jessie Bates.
The Falcons tied it at 14 early in the second quarter when their defense stumbled on their twin Achilles', third downs and the run. Ryan stepped up in the pocket on third-and-five to avoid the ends and squeezed it into old friend Mohamed Sanu over the middle. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith did most of the rest before Ryan took advantage of a blown coverage and hit wide-open tight end Logan Paulsen in the end zone for his first touchdown of the season.
After Ryan hit Julio Jones on one of those mind-numbing third-and-longs (24 yards from his own 12 with Jones' marvelous snatch-and-pull over cornerback William Jackson), the Bengals got what amounted to a turnover with their third fourth-down stop of the year courtesy of defensive tackle Geno Atkins' sack at the Bengals 49 on fourth-and-five.
It was Atkins' fourth sack of the season, putting him back on pace for a career-high and Bengals-best 16.
That turned into a short-field touchdown in the Bernard show. He converted a third-and-two blasting up and middle and transformed a third-and-6 on a flare in the right flat with everyone in the world out in front blocking for his 17-yard pickup. After Green wiped out cornerback Robert Alford on wide receiver Boyd's nine-yard gain out of the other flat, Bernard schooled Alford on a 10-yard run for a touchdown. Bernard got jammed up at the line and broke it outside to the left and beat Alford to the pylon. That gave the Bengals a 14-7 lead with 12 seconds left in a first quarter after Dalton hit six of his first eight passes for 93 yards.
The Bengals' defensive woes on third down were well documented coming into Sunday, but the Falcons were nearly as bad and they gave up a big one on the first drive. After a false start on right tackle Bobby Hart ballooned a third-and-short to third-and-seven, Dalton hit Green on a 38-yard beauty out of the slot and over his shoulder flaring to the right side for the first pass completed pass against the Falcons over 20 yards in the air this season.
Dalton did the rest, rolling out on a play-action and hitting wide receiver Tyler Boyd over the middle for 11 yards and then hitting tight end Tyler Eifert all alone down the seam for a 15-yarder and Eifert's first touchdown of the season.
Forget about the Bengals defense trying to stop the pass. On Sunday' first drive the Falcons pounded the Bengals in the running game, capped by running back Ito Smith's first NFL touchdown on a walk-thru seven-yard run that gave Atlanta a 7-0 lead just 4:40 into the game.
Smith ran behind a simple power play behind left guard Wes Schweitzer and tight end Austin Hooper and no one got off their block until WILL linebacker Jordan Evans missed the tackle. An opening kick return to midfield didn't help.