Taylor Heinicke struggles as Falcons lose to Bears, leaving them with narrow path to playoffs


CHICAGO (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons had a chance to increase their slim chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

They failed. And a familiar problem played a major role.

Taylor Heinicke threw three of Atlanta's four interceptions during the Falcons' 37-17 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday. He was 10 for 29 for 163 yards in his second straight start after Desmond Ridder was benched for the second time this season.

“Ultimately, when you turn the ball over four times and don't get any takeaways, that's a recipe for a bad result,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said.

Atlanta (7-9) had a chance to move into a tie for the NFC South lead, but it lost for the third time in four games. It stayed in the postseason race thanks to Tampa Bay's 23-13 loss to New Orleans.

The Falcons can still take the division if they win at New Orleans next weekend and the Buccaneers lose or tie at Carolina. There is no pathway to a wild card for Atlanta.

“The fact that we still have a chance going into Week 18, last week of the season, the fact that we're still in that, that's what you want,” Heinicke said. “If someone told us, Week 18 you are going to have a chance to go to the playoffs, you'll take it.”

It remains to be seen if Heinicke will be available for the matchup with the Saints. He was replaced by Ridder with 3:39 left because of a left ankle injury that already had him on the injury report going into Sunday's game. Ridder threw the Falcons' final interception.

Heinicke, who led Atlanta to its best offensive performance this season during a 29-10 win over Indianapolis, had a walking boot on his left leg after the loss at snowy Soldier Field.

“Later, as the game went on, you could tell his ankle was hurting him,” Smith said.

Heinicke was Atlanta's second-leading rusher with four carries for 46 yards, including a 24-yard scramble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. He said he thinks someone stepped on his foot on one of his last passes, causing “a little bit of sharp pain.”

“Once you’re in the heat of the battle, the adrenaline kind of takes over and you just go,” he said. “On most of those scrambles I wasn’t feeling it. It was mostly when you get to the sideline or you’re kind of sitting there in the huddle with the cold, it kind of creeps in your mind. Again, I’ve just got to play better.”

Atlanta was down 21-7 when Heinicke threw his first interception of the day — a diving catch by Bears linebacker T.J. Edwards right before halftime. He was picked off by Tyrique Stevenson in the third quarter, and Kyler Gordon was responsible for Heinicke's last interception on a fourth-and-17 pass in the fourth.

Cairo Santos kicked a 42-yard field goal after the Stevenson interception, and Khalil Herbert had a 1-yard TD run after the play by Gordon. Heinicke got 75 of his passing yards on a screen play to Tyler Allgeier that went for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

“It’s never one thing,” Smith said of Atlanta's passing game against Chicago. “For me to sit here and try to put blame on one person, that’s not how football works. A lot of things obviously that didn’t go right.”

Atlanta is averaging just 200.8 net yards passing this season and it has thrown 15 interceptions, including 12 in its nine losses.

“We turned the ball over, and we can’t do that, especially this team and how they play and this weather,” Heinicke said. “Can’t give them short fields. Can’t turn the ball over. Got to play clean football.”