ATLANTA – Julio Jones was nearly invisible for his lofty standards on Sunday afternoon, as Patrick Peterson and the rest of the Cardinals did enough to keep the elite receiver in check.
There was no trickle effect of dominance, as the other Atlanta skill players picked up the slack in the Falcons' 38-19 win at the Georgia Dome.
Taylor Gabriel had four catches for 75 yards and two scores to lead the way for an offense which amassed 360 total yards even though Jones accounted for only 35 of them. Running back Devonta Freeman and wideout Mohamed Sanu were among the other players who burned the Cardinals for big plays.
"They're across the board," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "That's why they're a top offense. I don't give a damn what the record or maybe even the stats show, that's the best offense in the league. Call it what it is. ... We were prepared, don't get me wrong, we just didn't come with it."
The Cardinals entered the game No. 1 in the NFL in total defense, while the Falcons were the top scoring team in the league. Atlanta clearly won the battle, punting just twice. Quarterback Matt Ryan was 26-of-34 for 269 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while Freeman added 16 carries for 60 yards and two scores.
Gabriel had a pair of touchdowns on bubble screens, dashing through the Cardinals defense as blockers set up ahead of him. The Cardinals twice had early leads but the defense allowed the Falcons to answer on their ensuing drive each time.
"The answering of score by score is something that is frustrating," coach Bruce Arians said. "We had a defense that was ranked No. 1 coming in, but we're not playing like a No. 1 defense."
The Jones-Peterson matchup was riveting. Jones caught four passes to get his 35 yards, and also drew a pair of pass interference penalties. The first one was controversial, as it came on third-and-goal from the 2, when Peterson knocked the ball down but was whistled for contacting Jones on a slant.
Peterson was later called for pass interference when he hit Jones early as the ball headed their way, and money linebacker Deone Bucannon had an interception on the play that was negated. Peterson, who was in and out of the game in the second half with a knee injury, went to the officials before and during the game with a request.
"Just allow us to play football," Peterson said he asked them. "We're two All-Pros. We both play a physical game of football. … It is what it is, but I can get pushed around all over the field and don't get calls. It is what it is. It was a great game and we all know we can't talk about the refs."
Safety Tyrann Mathieu was unhappy about the penalties as well.
"We've got a physical cornerback who can't even play physical," Mathieu said. "It's like flag football out there sometimes. We've got to battle through those things and just continue to make plays. Pat did a great job being physical with Julio. We let the running back get off a little bit and Matt Ryan, obviously. We didn't sack him enough or put pressure on him enough today."
That was the story of the day. Peterson limited arguably the best receiver in the NFL but the Falcons still amassed 38 points.
"They're No. 1 in the league for a reason," Peterson said. "They have weapons all around."