Speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel raced to the end zone on a pair of brilliant catch-and-runs, leading the Atlanta Falcons (7-4) to a 38-19 victory over the Arizona Cardinals (4-6-1) in Week 12. Here’s what we learned:
1. Entering the season, Arizona’s wide-receiver corps was widely hailed as the NFL’s deepest. While Larry Fitzgerald makes spectacular catches every week, John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson have been among the most ineffective wideouts in the league.
Atlanta, on the other hand, has progressed from a one-man gang to a full complement of weapons in the aerial attack. Gabriel, in particular, has been the impact waiver pickup of the season. The Falcons knew they needed speed opposite Julio Jones. Enter Gabriel, who played under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland two years ago. He was electric after the catch on Sunday, using his high-end speed and lightning-quick cutting ability to dart through the Cardinals‘ defense on magnificent touchdowns of 35 and 25 yards. Also a sneaky deep threat, Gabriel is averaging 80.5 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game over the past month. After exploding for 38 points against the NFL’s No. 1 team in total defense, the first-place Falcons are sitting pretty with three home games in the final five weeks of the regular season.
2. Every week, the Cardinals flash tantalizing glimpses of the talented roster that generated a franchise-record 13 victories in 2015. Every week, that talent is ultimately undone by a series of costly miscues. For most of the season, the problem has been special teams gaffes and untimely turnovers.
It started with penalties on Sunday. Patrick Peterson‘s two pass interference flags versus Julio Jones resulted in a Devonta Freeman touchdown and a nullified Deone Bucannon interception. Calais Campbell‘s fourth-down offsides penalty granted Atlanta a fresh set of downs that led to Gabriel’s second score. D.J. Swearinger dropped an interception during a 13-play drive capped off by a Tevin Coleman touchdown run. Now 4-6-1 with three tough road contests remaining, Bruce Arians is two full games behind Jay Gruden and the Redskins for the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
3. As disappointing as Arizona’s offense has been this season, David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald continue to build strong cases for the All-Pro team. Johnson (1,534) bypassed Dallas’ hotshot rookie Ezekiel Elliot (1,502) for most yards from scrimmage this season. Fitzgerald comes through with spectacular catches on a weekly basis. Sunday’s performance included a diving, one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab and a sliding timeout to leave one second on the clock for a 54-yard field goal entering halftime.
4. The Cardinals reshuffled their offensive line, kicking D.J. Humphries to left tackle, moving John Wetzel inside to guard and promoting Ulrick John to right tackle. To be generous, the results were mixed. Although the Falcons managed just two sacks, Vic Beasley was beating John like a drum from the second quarter on, rushing Carson Palmer and wreaking havoc in the backfield. David Johnson‘s garbage-time touchdown was Arizona’s lone score of the second half. The blocking woes mean Palmer’s offense simply isn’t built to play from behind.
5. John Brown can’t catch a break this season. After a month-long concussion wiped out his training camp, he was stricken by a sickle cell trait that led to pain in his hamstrings. Arians told the FOX broadcast team that this is the healthiest Brown has been all season. “Smokey” caught just one pass for 19 yards before a hamstring injury knocked him out of the game early in the third quarter.