Herm Edwards said it long ago during a post-game press conference during his time as the head coach of the New York Jets. You play to win the game. Hello!
But, the Falcons did not win the game on Sunday against the Saints in New Orleans, much to the horrified chagrin and lingering devastation of Falcons fans everywhere. Let's take a brief--because heaven knows we don't need to dwell on it--look at what the Falcons did well against the Saints, and objectively consider the weaknesses that need to be addressed moving forward.
If you isolate individual offensive performances, it's difficult to believe the Falcons did not win this game. Matt Ryan threw for 411 yards and 3 touchdowns, with one interception that was basically equivalent to a punt simply because of the field position the Saints got out of it. The Falcons controlled the ball for 32:35 of the game.
Roddy White had 114 yards receiving, Julio Jones missed part of the game due to injury and racked up 75 yards receiving, anyway. Tony Gonzalez had 122 yards receiving and two touchdowns--career touchdowns 100 and 101 for the future Hall of Famer. Offensive lineman Mike Johnson caught a touchdown pass. Jacquizz Rodgers was the leading rusher (with 29 yards on three carries, we'll get to that later) and also caught four passes for 33 yards. Matt Bryant was automatic, and Matt Bosher was efficient, as is his tradition.
Drew Brees was welcomed to the game with a lovely interception by Asante Samuel on New Orleans' first play from scrimmage. Steven Nicholas sacked Brees once, and Brees was hit once and hurried by the Falcons 13 times. (None of these sacks, hits or hurries were effected by Ray Edwards, who was released by the Falcons last night in a stunning mid-season, post-trade deadline move.)
But a lot of other stuff happened, too, much of it frustrating. Capping off a week in which the rarely-penalized Falcons were frequently touted as such, they sure racked up six penalties for 53 yards on Sunday. Atlanta's per game average this season is 3.6 penalties.
New Orleans has a high-powered offense, and Brees' favorite target, tight end Jimmy Graham, is difficult to cover. The Saints exploited Atlanta's weakness against the run and their propensity toward missed tackles. In total, the Falcons missed eight tackles throughout the entire game, per Pro Football Focus premium stats, but it seemed like the missed tackles were extremely costly, for example, in the case of the Chris Ivory touchdown in the first quarter.
And, perhaps the most perplexing element of Sunday's performance, the Falcons had essentially no rushing game to balance out their offense against a genuinely terrible run defense. Against a team that has allowed an average of 162 yards per game rushing this season, Jacquizz Rodgers, Michael Turner and Matt Ryan combined for 46 total rushing yards.
Teams should generally try to avoid leaving points on the field against an offense as successful as the Saints. Well, Atlanta's red zone efficiency against the Saints was 50%, which is better than the 25% they managed against the Cowboys, if you want to look on the bright side, but it is below average for the team this season. Lacking the personnel, scheme, or just confidence to convert short yardage is a persistent issue for the team, and it should be addressed with urgency.
It isn't a big deal to drop a game. The Falcons are still in a great position to win the division and even lock up home field advantage. But, it will be a big deal in the long run if the Falcons don't correct the issues that contributed to this loss. The missed tackles and bad angles that plague the defense, particularly against the run, are maddening. The lack of any sort of effective rushing game is frustrating. In the NFL, you play to win the game. The Falcons have to address their weaknesses so they will be in a position to do so when it really matters.