A defensive battle wasn't what many expected from Sunday's matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs, but that's exactly what transpired with the Chiefs winning a competitive 17-14 game.
Despite coming into the game already eliminated from the postseason and facing the team with the best record in the NFL, the Falcons looked every bit up to the challenge. As interim head coach Raheem Morris continue to make his case to again become a head coach in the NFL, Sunday's game was a testament to how well he can prepare a team and continue to motivate them to play well.
It's often said that games are determined by a handful of plays, but two back-to-back plays stand above the others in the story of Sunday. Down 14-10 at the Falcons' 25-yard line, Patrick Mahomes took a shot at the end zone with a pass intended for speedster Tyreek Hill. Rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell, who has been Atlanta's most consistent corner this season, was in prime position to pick off Mahomes and put the Falcons in excellent position to seal their win. As he crashed to the ground, Terrell lost his grip on the ball and the result was an incomplete pass rather than an interception.
That dropped pick proved monumental. With newfound life, Mahomes hit Demarcus Robinson for a 25-yard touchdown and the 17-14 lead on the next play. Atlanta's defense played possibly its best game of the season, but Terrell couldn't make the big play at the end to topple Goliath.
Despite falling behind late in the game, Atlanta's offense rallied to put the Falcons in position to send the game into overtime. Kicker Younghoe Koo, who had missed just one kick all year and made 27 consecutive field goals, pushed the ball to the right on his 39-yard attempt, cementing the victory for Kansas City.
Still, it's worth noting that the Falcons stood toe to toe with the reigning Super Bowl champs for four quarters, and took a late 14-10 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Laquon Treadwell. They were once again in great shape to send the game into overtime, and Atlanta proved it won't roll over for the remainder of the season.
Ryan played well for the second-straight game, completing 27 of his 35 pass attempts for 300 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. With Julio Jones sidelined, it was Calvin Ridley who was once again Ryan's top target. Ridley finished with five catches for 130 yards, but it was Hayden Hurst and Treadwell who caught Ryan's two touchdown passes.
In his first game as lead back, Ito Smith turned in a good performance. He carried the ball 10 times for 46 yards, avoiding any negative plays and continuing to demonstrated patience as a runner. Brian Hill had seven carries for 36 yards, and Todd Gurley carried it four times for 16 yards while catching three passes for 34 yards.
The Chiefs entered Sunday's game ranked first in both total offense and scoring offense averaging 427.9 yards and 31.1 points per game. Atlanta's defense, which has played much better of late under Morris and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, held the Chiefs below those season averages. Kansas City gained 395 yards and scored just 17 points, and Atlanta pinned down the Chiefs in a way most NFL teams haven't.
Mahomes finished the game completing just 24 of his 44 pass attempts for 278 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. As has often been the case this season, his top target was tight end Travis Kelce, who set a new record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end and finished with seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.
A fumble by Brandon Powell deep in Chiefs territory killed some momentum for the Falcons in the fourth quarter. Atlanta was stringing together one of its best offensive possessions of the afternoon and looked poised to potentially take the lead in the fourth quarter when Ryan found Powell in the flat on the left side.
Trying to pick up the first down on second-and-four, Powell was squared up by Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay, who jarred the ball loose. As they did throughout the afternoon, Atlanta's defense rose to the occasion and stalled Kansas City's offense to preserve the three-point deficit after Powell's fumble, but it was a clear missed opportunity to put points on the board, and those missed points would prove crucial.
A scoreless third quarter gave way to a 53-yard field goal by Harrison Butker at the start of the fourth quarter to break up the tie between the two teams and give Kansas City a 10-7 lead. The kick followed a third-down play in which Jacob Tuioti-Mariner very nearly came away with Atlanta's third interception of the game, which would have preserved the tie.
It looked as though Kansas City would take the lead on its first series of the second half, moving down the field with some chunk plays and getting inside the 10-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Mahomes fired a dart over the middle in the direction of Kelce, but he lost sight of Foye Oluokun, who leapt up to pick off the former league MVP.
Oluokun returned the ball from the goal line all the way to midfield, giving Atlanta's offense excellent field position for its first drive of the third quarter. That opportunity was squandered, however, after back-to-back sacks. Nevertheless, denying Kansas City any points still proved impactful and provided Atlanta with momentum on defense after a good start to the game.
The first half did not feature the offensive performances that people were likely expecting in this matchup. Neither team scored in the first quarter, as each defense forced multiple punts and controlled the early action.
Kansas City's third offensive possession looked to be its most promising, and the Chiefs were deep in Falcons territory when they lined up to go for the first down on fourth-and-1. Opting for some trickery, the Chiefs had receiver Sammy Watkins roll out to his right and buy time for a throwback pass to Mahomes down the left sideline. Falcons safety Keanu Neal sniffed out the play, however, and out-jumped Mahomes to come away with the second interception of his career.
Starting from their 2-yard line, the Falcons' offense took over from there. A couple of first downs provided some breathing room for Atlanta, and then a 54-yard catch and run by Ridley flipped the field and put the Falcons down to Kansas City's 11-yard line. Two plays later, Atlanta pulled out a misdirection play of its own, and the result was a 5-yard shovel pass from Ryan to Hurst for a touchdown.
Down 7-0, the Chiefs gained possession for the last time in the first half and their offense sparked to life. Draining nearly the remainder of the clock, Kansas City covered 78 yards in 12 plays to score its first touchdown on a 4-yard pass from Mahomes to Travis Kelce.
The Falcons will close out their 2020 season with a road rematch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Atlanta had perhaps its best half of football in the first half against Tampa Bay in the first meeting between the two teams, but the Falcons faded down the stretch before ultimately losing 31-27. Next week, they get the opportunity to avenge that loss.