Heinicke lifts Falcons with clean play at quarterback in win to cool Colts' playoff hopes
ATLANTA (AP) — Arthur Smith's goal was for the Atlanta Falcons to remain relevant in the NFC South.
Taylor Heinicke knew the best way to reach that goal was to avoid mistakes.
Heinicke provided the turnover-free leadership at quarterback Atlanta has sought all season, passing for 229 yards and a touchdown to lead the Falcons to a 29-10 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
“Obviously, the story of the season so far has been, you know, turnovers and self-inflicted wounds and that was kind of our message this week was not beat ourselves,” Heinicke said. “Let’s make them go beat us. I thought we played a really clean game.”
The Falcons (7-8) benched Desmond Ridder this week for the second time this season following two straight losses, providing an opportunity for Heinicke to boost the team's fading playoff hopes. Ridder had been unable to avoid turnovers, throwing 10 interceptions with 11 fumbles to go with 10 touchdown passes.
“He kept the offense in rhythm,” Smith said of Heinicke. “We wanted to be aggressive and he certainly executed the plan.”
The Colts (8-7) had won five of six to move into a first-place tie in the AFC South, but struggled offensively after opening the game with a long drive capped by Jonathan Taylor's 1-yard scoring run.
The Indianapolis defense had only one sack of Heinicke, while the Colts' Gardner Minshew was sacked six times.
“He did a good job with some movements in the pocket to create some space,” said Colts coach Shane Steichen of Heinicke. “That’s what he does. Obviously you want to create that pressure on the quarterback and get those sacks and get those takeaways. Credit to Atlanta.”
Added Colts linebacker E.J. Speed: “He made his team multi-dimensional. Nothing bad I can say about him.”
Minshew faced frequent pressure from the Falcons' pass rush, including on an incomplete fourth down pass from the Atlanta 38 with about 10 minutes remaining.
The Colts' next drive ended with Jessie Bates' interception of Minshew's pass over the middle intended for Alec Pierce. It was Bates' sixth interception of the season.
Minshew completed 20 of 37 passes for 201 yards with one interception.
The Falcons' finish will determine the future of Smith, the third-year coach. Team owner Arthur Blank said this week he would wait until after the regular season to make a decision on Smith's status.
Asked if the win provided more joy or relief, Smith said “Sometimes winning is a relief. But you see that response from the team, you know, that’s why you love this game. And it’s kind of refreshing. ... You don’t want to lose that joy. So I would say it’s more joy.”
Last weekend's 9-7 loss to last-place Carolina knocked Atlanta out of a first-place tie in the division. The Falcons' fading hopes in the division were helped by New Orleans' 30-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday.
“Week to week, everything changes,” Smith said.
Atlanta’s defense gave up its first touchdown on an opening drive of the season. Taylor needed three runs from the Atlanta 1 before scoring.
It also was the first rushing touchdown the Falcons have given up to a running back this season.
Taylor, who returned after missing three games with a thumb injury, had 18 carries for 43 yards. The Colts rushed for only 92 yards and were outgained 406-262 overall.
CLEAN LOOK FOR HOLIDAYS
For the second time this season, Smith shaved his moustache before the game, perhaps hoping to change his team’s luck following back-to-back losses to NFC South rivals Tampa Bay and Carolina.
“I had the change the momentum, you know, church myself up for the holidays,” Smith said.
Colts: WR Michael Pittman (concussion, shoulder) and RB Zack Moss (forearm) did not play. Pittman was cleared from the concussion protocol on Friday and traveled with the team to Atlanta before being ruled out Saturday after again experiencing more symptoms. ... SS Julian Blackmon left the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.
Falcons: LB Lorenzo Carter (neck, head) cleared concussion protocol after leaving the game in the third quarter. RG Chris Lindstrom also cleared the concussion protocol in the fourth quarter. ... LB Arnold Ebiketie was listed as questionable to return with a knee injury late in the game.
Colts: Close the regular season with two home games, including next Sunday's visit from the Las Vegas Raiders.
Falcons: Visit Chicago next Sunday in the first of two road games to close the regular season, followed by a visit to New Orleans.
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