Adrian Clayborn, others step up big when Falcons need win the most

ATLANTA -- Ask around the Atlanta Falcons' locker room about what type of leader Adrian Clayborn is, and most will tell you the veteran defensive end quietly goes about his business and leads by example.

"It's his every-play energy," free safety Ricardo Allen said of his teammate. "He's just a guy that goes full speed every play. He ignores his body and grinds it out. He stays in a dark place, and he goes hard."

Sunday was the perfect demonstration of the relentless, workhorse mentality folks like Allen see from Clayborn on a daily basis. He set a franchise record with six sacks, topping the previous record of five shared by Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey and pass-rush guru Chuck Smith. And Clayborn's inspired effort gave the Falcons a little extra juice on a day they needed a boost and a win.

Clayborn, who also forced two fumbles, was the game's MVP for his effort, which included constantly abusing Dallas Cowboys left tackle Chaz Green as Green filled in for injured All-Pro Tyron Smith. Then Clayborn got a couple on Byron Bell as the Falcons sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott eight times in all. They also held Dallas running backs, playing without Ezekiel Elliott, to 65 rushing yards.

But Clayborn had help from unheralded players just like himself in a 27-7 triumph.

Like wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who picked up some big third downs. Like receiver Justin Hardy, who had a key touchdown. Like running back Tevin Coleman, who scored a touchdown on a day where his tag-team partner, starter Devonta Freeman, got knocked out the game because of a concussion.

Let's not forget about defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who was shifted over to offense in the goal-line package and cleared a hole for Coleman's touchdown. It's the same contribution from Poe that folks in Kansas City became accustomed to when he played for the Chiefs.

Overall, the Falcons looked more like a squad capable of making a playoff run and not like the mediocre team they were over the first half of the season.

"It just proves that we can do it," Clayborn said. "We've kind of been iffy about, I don't know, our mentality. But [this win] definitely proves that we can do it."

Oh, yeah, the usual suspects showed up, too. Matt Ryan completed just about every pass he threw in the second half, including completing 9 of 9 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter, while becoming the fastest player to reach 40,000 career passing yards. Julio Jones, who entered the game off an ankle injury, made one of those incredible catches only he could make.

But it was the overall team effort that helped put the Falcons back in the win column after dropping the previous two games at home and four of the previous five overall leading into Sunday.

Now the Falcons, at 5-4, have a little momentum to start the second half of the season. They need it with the New Orleans Saints streaking in the NFC South with seven wins in a row and a 7-2 record. And the 6-3 Carolina Panthers, who beat the Falcons a week ago, don't play until Monday night.

"Momentum don't last," Jones said. "It can get going, then it can stop. I just think that we're gelling more and having that team camaraderie. That brotherhood is really coming through and we're playing for each other now.

"Every time somebody made a play, offensive or defensively, the opposite side was out there cheering them on more so than everybody just sitting back there and saying, 'OK, that's what he's supposed to do.' You know he's supposed to do it, but it always feels good when your brother comes and tells you, 'Hey, great job.' "

The Falcons knew they had two tough NFC matchups over the next two games, with the Cowboys coming to town and a visit to Seattle next on the schedule. Can they build off the Dallas win? Getting Freeman back healthy will be key, although Coleman is very capable. But more than anything, they need a strong collective effort from everyone on the roster.

Sunday's showing was what coach Dan Quinn has preached all season about being a tough outfit. Clayborn's inspired individual effort simply made the Falcons look that much tougher.