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Falcons 31, Cardinals 30

August 24, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ The Atlanta Falcons hardly had the look of a winner in their final preseason game.

The locker room resembled a hospital ward Friday night after Atlanta’s 31-30 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Six Falcons were hobbling around, a devastating blow to a team that already was dealing with myriad injuries during training camp.

``We certainly had some injuries tonight,″ coach June Jones lamented. ``I guess we’ll start the season playing short if we have to.″

Already carrying only three runners, the Falcons lost rookie Richard Huntley to a potentially serious knee injury on the second-half kickoff. Also, cornerback Tim Denton possibly suffered a separated shoulder, further weakening a secondary that already had been ravaged by injuries.

``The problem with the salary cap is teams already expend all the money they have going into training camp, and they’re in dire straights if someone goes down,″ said Browning Nagle, who played most of the game at quarterback for the Falcons in relief of Jeff George. ``Maybe the preseason is a little long.″

With Huntley apparently out, the Falcons have only two runners _ Craig Heyward and Jamal Anderson _ for their one-back offense, and they don’t have money available under the cap to add another player if Huntley is lost for a lengthy period.

The injuries overshadowed a game that was thrilling at the end after the Falcons built a 31-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Arizona reserve quarterback Kent Graham threw for three fourth-quarter TDs, the last a 2-yarder to Duane Young with 18 seconds left that cut the Falcons’ lead to one. At that point, Atlanta had only three healthy defensive backs, with safety Brad Edwards moving over to cornerback.

``I know they were banged up on defense,″ Graham said. ``We were definitely trying to exploit it.″

The Cardinals (1-3) went for the victory, but third-stringer Ryan Terry was stopped short of the goal line by Lorenzo Styles on a 2-point try. Arizona recovered the onsides kick, but two incompletions by Graham ended the game.

Graham finished 13-of-24 for 200 yards, also throwing TD passes of 18 yards to Anthony Edwards and 19 yards to Kevin Jordan when it looked the Falcons had sealed the victory. Though he had five touchdown passes in the preseason to just one for 35-year-old veteran Boomer Esiason, Graham knows he won’t be the starter next weekend.

``It’s a coach’s decision,″ Graham said. ``I thought that I went out tonight and played well. That’s what I wanted to do coming in. This was a big success for me.″

With Anderson sitting out the game as a precaution, Heyward was forced to shoulder the running load after Huntley was hurt. Heyward scored three touchdowns, including two in the second half when he usually would have been watching from the bench.

Jeff George completed 14-of-18 passes for 134 yards in a brief stint for the Falcons (2-2), who closed the exhibition season with two straight victories after their quarterback ended his holdout.

Even though he only played through the first series of the second quarter, George led the Falcons on two scoring drives with the Cardinals trying futilely to stop Atlanta’s four-receiver, run-and-shoot offense with a basic 4-3-4 defense.

Heyward scored on a 2-yard run to finish off the first drive, and Terance Mathis caught a 1-yard touchdown from George to make it 14-0.

The Falcons led 14-10 at halftime, then Heyward appeared to put the game out of reach with his two second-half scores, one on a 12-yard shovel pass from Nagle, the other a 1-yard run. Morten Anderson also had a 49-yard field goal.

For the first time, Arizona scored a touchdown with its new starting quarterback, Esiason, calling the signals. Lance McElroy scored on a 4-yard run in the second quarter after Esiason completed three passes for 46 yards. Greg Davis added a 35-yard field goal.

Esiason completed only 7-of-17 passes for 91 yards and the Arizona running game reeled from the salary-cap release of Garrison Hearst earlier in the week. The new starting duo of Larry Centers and Leeland McElroy produced only 47 yards.

``I think we were moving the ball and the thing is that if it doesn’t happen right away, you can’t get discouraged,″ Esiason said. ``We were so close on the deep ball that it’s frightening.″

The Cardinals also were heartened by the return of holdouts Eric Swann, who started on the defensive line, and Simeon Rice, a first-round pick who had two sacks in his first NFL game.

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