ATLANTA — The big news going into today’s game was supposed to be all about the player who was not going to be in uniform at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. As it turned out, the story ended up being about the player who seemed to be everywhere on the field.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn lived in the Cowboys backfield all game, recording a Falcons team-record six sacks as Atlanta won a pivotal intra-conference matchup, 27-7, over a Dallas Cowboys team that was playing without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 22 of his 29 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns while the offense rushed for 132 yards, but it was Clayborn, who did not even start the game for the Falcons, who stole the show for Atlanta (5-4). He recorded three sacks in each half, setting a team record for sacks in a game while coming up just one sack shy of the NFL record for sacks in a game; The late Derrick Thomas record seven sacks in a game for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Seattle Seahawks in 1990.
Dallas went into today’s game without Elliott after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion for an injunction on Monday night, a ruling that allowed his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy to be effective immediately. But, as it turned out, the biggest absence on the Cowboys’ offense happened to be left tackle Tyron Smith, who missed the game with groin and back injuries. Four of the six sacks Clayborn recorded came when he was lined up against Smith’s replacement on the Cowboys’ left side of the line, third-year tackle Chaz Green.
At the beginning of the first quarter, Dallas’ offense was very effective without Elliott, the leading rusher in the NFC with 783 rushing yards. The Cowboys’ first drive ended in a punt, though it was a nine-play drive that yielded three first downs and moved inside of the Atlanta 40-yard line.
On Atlanta’s first possession, Ryan made his one and only mistake in the game, throwing an interception to safety Xavier Woods, who returned the ball seven yards to the Atlanta 21. Dallas took advantage of the takeaway three plays later, as Prescott, on a scramble, ran to the right and scored from 11 yards out to give Dallas a 7-0 lead.
Atlanta answered with a score on its next drive, settling for a 50-yard Matt Bryant field goal on the last play of the first quarter.
The Falcons took the lead late in the second quarter, driving 80 yards to claim a lead that it would not relinquish for the rest of the game. Running back Tevin Coleman, coming in for an injured Devonta Freeman (concussion), ripped off a 19-yard run that moved the ball into Dallas territory. (A Jeff Heath facemask on Coleman added 15 more yards to the end of the run.) Coleman ended the drive with a one-yard plunge into the end zone to give the Falcons a 10-7 lead with 1:31 left in the second quarter.
Dallas quickly drove into Atlanta territory in an attempt to tie the game or take the lead right before halftime, but then Clayborn arose to make what turned out to be the biggest play of the game. From the Falcons’ 39-yard line, Clayborn beat Green with a spin move, stripped a scrambling Prescott of the ball and recovered it with five seconds remaining in the first half to preserve Atlanta’s lead going into the intermission.
Atlanta carried that momentum from that play into the second half, scoring touchdowns on its first two drives of the half. Coleman ran for 17 yards on the first play of the third quarter, which was followed by a 24-yard pass from Ryan to Julio Jones. The drive, which lasted 11 plays, ended on a three-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Justin Hardy, giving the Falcons a 17-7 lead.
Dallas was effective on its first drive of the second half as well, moving the ball into the red zone before having to settle for a field goal attempt. Mike Nugent, kicking for an injured Dan Bailey, missed a 38-yard field goal wide right.
Atlanta took over after that missed field goal and proceeded to salt the game away with its second touchdown drive in a row. On a third-and-five from the Atlanta 33, Ryan found Taylor Gabriel for 34 yards to the Dallas 33-yard line, and that play was followed by an 18-yard run from Coleman. Ryan ended the drive with his second touchdown pass, hitting tight end Austin Hooper from one yard out to open up a 17-point lead at 24-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys had their worst offensive game of the season, only accumulating 233 total yards. Alfred Morris got the start in the backfield in place of Elliott, rushing for 53 yards on 11 carries. Prescott, who completed 20-of-30 passes for 176 yards with no touchdown passes and no interceptions, chipped in on the ground with 42 yards rushing on six attempts.
Coleman ran for 83 yards on 20 carries, his most rushing yards in a game since Dec. 24 of last season, when he ran for 90 yards in a win at Carolina.