By Cedric Williams

The Atlanta Falcons knew they were facing a stiff challenge in their Monday Night Football season opener at the Georgia Dome against the high-flying, Chip Kelly-led Philadelphia Eagles. And the Falcons more than lived up to that challenge by jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead. After falling behind midway through the fourth quarter, they finally rallied for a 26-24 win.

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Several players stood out for Atlanta. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 298 yards, two touchdowns and finished with a 90.1 passer rating. Rookie running back Tevin Coleman carried the ball 20 times for 80 yards in his first NFL game. And the defense was led by linebacker Paul Worrilow, who had a game-high 13 tackles, and safety William Moore, who had nine tackles and a key interception that helped set up a Falcon touchdown in the first half.

But the biggest star of the night was wideout Julio Jones, who recorded his 20th career 100-yard receiving game, with nine catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Jones signed a huge contract extension ($47 million guaranteed) last month, and showed himself worth every dollar, with a performance not seen since the last time the Falcons were on Monday Night Football and he caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Green Bay.

Offense: A-

The Atlanta offense looked in midseason form right from the outset as it drove right through the Philly defense for a combined 110 yards on 14 plays on its first two possessions. Only a deflected pass intended for Jones (on the Falcons’ first possession, which forced the home team to settle for a field goal), and an incredible interception in the end zone by Philly’s Kiko Alonso, kept Atlanta from scoring big early.

But the Falcons were only getting started.

Ryan heated up in the second quarter, as he continued to find Jones and running mate Roddy White for big plays that helped Atlanta build its big halftime lead. Coleman was also solid carrying the ball behind the Falcons’ makeshift offensive line that was continuously attacked and blitzed hard by Philly’s aggressive front four.

The only downside for the offense on Monday, were the two interceptions thrown by Ryan. One, as mentioned earlier, came on a brilliant play by the defense. So the quarterback couldn’t really be blamed. But the second INT, which came early in the third quarter, was simply a bad throw to a receiver who wasn’t open. And it really served as the play that re-energized Philadelphia and turned the momentum back in the Eagles’ favor.

Late in the game though, when Atlanta needed Ryan to step up, he did. Ryan led the Falcons back to a go-ahead field goal that proved to be the game-winner when Philly couldn’t answer.

Defense: B-

Like the offense, the Falcon defense was brilliant in the first half, as it held the Philadelphia offense, which was the highest-scoring unit in the league during the preseason, to a mere three points. The front seven contained Murray and held him to just nine yards rushing on eight carries.

Moore’s interception was huge also, as it helped set up Jones’ second touchdown catch in the second quarter. Philadelphia could only manage one sustained drive in the first half because that Falcon D was flying all over the field.

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The third quarter was different, though. That’s why the defense gets a B, instead of an A.

Philly quarterback Sam Bradford began to find his targets and move the ball, and by the time the third quarter was over, the score was 20-17. And midway through the fourth, the Eagles had the lead. Fortunately, after the Falcons got the lead back, the defense was able to make another big play — an interception by Ricardo Allen — to secure the win.

Special Teams: A-

Atlanta didn’t get much out of the return game, as Eric Weems subbed for the injured Devin Hester, and pulled double duty as both the kickoff return and punt return man. On three kickoff returns, Weems averaged 19.7 yards/return and he managed just 9.0 yards/return on punts.

Kicker Matt Bryant had a perfect night for the Falcons, going 2-for-2 on the new longer PATs and 4-for-4 on field goals, including the game-winning 47-yarder in the fourth quarter. Punter Matt Bosher was also fantastic. Not only did he boom kickoffs through the end zone all night, he also averaged 57.8 yards/kick on four punts.

Coaching: B+

In his first game as Falcons head coach, Dan Quinn clearly had his team fired up and ready to play. Atlanta’s offense attacked where it knew it could early, and the defense had the Eagles stymied through the first half. That’s a clear sign of an outstanding original gameplan.

But Philly adjusted at halftime and it took Atlanta awhile to match that. So long in fact, that the Eagles were able to take the lead before the Falcons could regain control. 

Atlanta will be on the road in the Big Apple on Sunday when it heads to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., for a matchup with the New York Giants. It’ll be the Falcons second straight meeting with an up-and-coming club from the NFC East.

Both clubs are good at the power run game, and both have terrific quarterbacks to go along with dynamic receiving corps that are capable of putting up big points. The Falcons and Giants are also both learning new schemes on defense, with new coordinators taking over in both spots. So it should be quite interesting to see which club can make its adjustments and improvements from Week 1 to Week 2 the quickest.

After the first week of the season, it would seem Atlanta would have that advantage. But that’s why they play games.

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Cedric Williams, a lifelong St. Louisan and proud UMSL alum, has been a full-time reporter/photographer covering St. Louis area sports for nearly two decades. Most recently, he has been working as a credentialed beat writer covering the NFL, as well as college and high school sports for the St. Louis American, Patch.com, and other outlets from around the area. Please share any comments, questions, or feedback with Cedric at cedricwilliams510@gmail.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.