Another Falcons win, another year shaved off my life due to overwhelming stress. By the time this season’s over, I’m going to be in serious trouble.
Despite a mediocre game from MVP candidate Matt Ryan, Atlanta managed to come out on top Thursday night, defeating New Orleans 23-13. Matt Bryant all but sealed the victory with a clutch 55-yard field goal late in the fourth, allowing the hometown fans to go home happy, albeit with very few fingernails left.
While the Birds won by a margin of 10 points, the game was a lot closer than the score may indicate. Throughout the second and third quarters, this matchup was eerily similar to the last meeting between these two teams on November 12: The Falcons got on top early, then fell stagnant, and the Saints came roaring back.
But New Orleans didn't have enough in the tank to earn a thrilling win this time around, and that failure falls mostly on its quarterback.
Brees Has Brutal Game
For the first time in his career, Brees tossed five interceptions in a 60 minute contest. Additionally, he failed to throw a touchdown pass—ending his record-long streak at 54 games. It's fitting that both of these occurances took place in Atlanta, at least from my perspective.
"I guess records are made to be broken, and at some point, they come to an end," Brees said after the game. "We played well enough to win, with the glaring exception of the turnovers. It doesn't really matter how they happened. The fact is there were five of them, and that's extremely disappointing."
Saints' Playoff Hopes Dwindle
Technically, the Saints are still in contention for one of the two available NFC Wild Card spots, but losing on Thursday makes this task very, very difficult. Only five teams in NFL history have made the playoffs after going 5-7 through 12 games.
"I take full responsibility for this loss," Jonathan Vilma said. "I didn't do a good job preparing our football team to come in here and get the job done. We will go back to work tomorrow. The future as far as the playoffs go looks bleak right now but we will still work to get better every day."
Falcons Compensate for Loss of Samuel
With Brent Grimes out for the season and Asante Samuel playing just one series before bowing out with a shoulder ailment, the Falcons needed the rest of their secondary to step up to the task. And that's exactly what they did.
William Moore—who moved to the nickel back position when Robert McClain filled in for Samuel at corner—had the best game of his career, earning two interceptions. The latter of those two picks proved to be the final nail in the Saints coffin with just 1:52 left in regulation. Thomas DeCoud had a pick as well, as did Jonathan Babineaux and Sean Weatherspoon.
“I give all the credit to coach (Mike) Nolan for his excellent game plan, tonight,” Moore said. ” He’s a heck of a defensive coordinator, and it was on full display in this game. This defense showed up against an excellent player in Drew Brees.”
In addition to the Falcons’ five interceptions, they also deflected 12 passes. Quite a night for Coach Nolan’s crew.
Running Game Ignites Offense
While Matt Ryan failed to get into much of a rhythm on Thursday, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers compensated by providing a lot of offense on the ground. Turner scored a touchdown for the third week in a row, and became the franchise's all-time leader in touchdowns with 58. He finished the day with 83 yards on 12 carries (6.9 average), which included a 35 yard sprint in the opening series.
Rodgers, while utilized less than expected, was productive as well, gaining 43 yards on eight carries (5.4 average).
Passing Game Struggles
New Orleans had the 32nd ranked pass defense in the NFL entering this week, and with the best trio of receivers in the league in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons should've been able to tear apart the Saints secondary. This was not the case.
Even though Atlanta scored 23 points, they did so converting just one third down all game long, and that didn't come until 6:51 was left in the fourth quarter. Despite having the same number of drives (13 apiece) the Saints ran 74 plays to the Falcons' 57. What Mike Nolan's defense did becomes even more impressive when we consider just how much they were on the field and how little time they had to rest between series. New Orleans had the ball for 36:34, while the Falcons had possession for only 26:16.
Roddy White didn’t get his first reception until the third quarter, and that would be his only catch of the night. Jones was held in check for most of the game as well, with just 48 receiving yards. Had Atlanta’s air attack been up to par, this game would have been a lot less dramatic. In fact, it could have easily been as lopsided as 28-0 mid-way through the second quarter. But the Falcons' inability to convert on third downs—among other issues—made a blowout impossible, and kept the game close down to the wire.
"We're a team that finds many different ways to win," Matt Ryan said after the game. "We do it with all three phases...and tonight, the defense was huge."