We knew the Falcons had played better football of late, but a win on the road against New Orleans rarely comes easy. For those of us who wanted to see the Falcons sweep the NFC South in 2014, then, the best hope seemed to be a narrow win, the kind these teams usually post in their heated matchups.
While the end result didn't necessarily reflect how close the game was right until the end, the Falcons still emphatically beat their rivals, 30-14. The defense piled up five sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles against a Saints offense that looked surprisingly overmatched. The offense was weirdly anemic for long stretches, but in the end they did more than enough to pull off the victory. The Falcons are now 5-0 in the NFC South, and they've gone 2-0 against the Saints for the first time since 2005, when Jim L. Mora was the coach.
We've spent years questioning this team's toughness, and over the last two seasons, that talk has been largely on mark. Over the last few weeks, though, this Falcons team has cobbled together stronger performances, culminating in a game where the Falcons took advantage of a suddenly scuffling Saints offense and played maybe their stoutest defensive 60 minutes of the season. This team hit hard, forced turnovers and pushed through an absurd number of injuries in the secondary to pull off a win. Toughness is such a subjective thing to measure, but this team passed the eye test yesterday.
Questions of toughness and record aside, that was a tremendously enjoyable game for any Falcons fan. The Saints have been the bogeyman of the Mike Smith regime, and seeing the team pull off two quality wins against New Orleans in a single season is pretty fantastic.
Given the stakes in this game and the unfavorable circumstances, it was a statement win for a team that still harbors hopes of a deep playoff run despite the steep odds against that outcome for much of the season. They now get the Panthers at home with the chance to win the division at 7-9. In this bizarre, topsy-turvy season, this team is right where they belong.
On to the individual breakdowns.
- Matt Ryan's stat line doesn't pop off the page, but in a game where the team needed him to play smart football and avoid mistakes, he managed that while still keeping the offense moving. Given how many questions have been raised about his turnovers in recent weeks, it was a welcome performance, and Ryan was accurate and got rid of the ball quickly under duress.
- The ground game wasn't a major part of the offense, but Devonta Freeman made up for that with a 31 yard touchdown run in the third quarter, which went well with his three catches for 48 yards. Freeman could see his snaps increase if Steven Jackson is going to miss any time, but either way, his explosiveness should make him a bigger part of the offense.
- Julio Jones didn't appear to be 100%, but that didn't stop him from reeling in seven of eight targets for 107 yards. Another day at the office by his standards, and the Panthers should be frightened that he'll have a week to rest up before the last game of the season.
- Ra'Shede Hageman grows by the week. In this game, he simply overpowered Jahri Evans en route to a sack, and he was disruptive multiple times when he was in the game. We don't know what Hageman's ceiling is going to be, but he looks like a useful player already.
- Hat tips to Kroy Biermann, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux, who each picked up sacks against Brees. Babineaux's was particularly impressive, and he continues to haunt Drew Brees' dreams after all these years.
- Desmond Trufant continues to be one of the game's premier young cornerbacks, and the interceptions are finally starting to come along with the superior coverage chops.That's three on the year for Tru.
- Robert McClain doesn't get the same praise, and his coverage has been hit or miss this year. For all that, he got his hands on a couple of passes and wound up with a critical late game interception
- Dwight Lowery has been solid all season, and he was phenomenal in this one. His five tackles, sack and forced fumble were instrumental in this one, and he was a key cog for the effective defensive effort.
- Matt Bryant is money, Matt Bosher has a hammerleg. Nothing new.
- This game couldn't last forever.
Game MVP: Give this one up to the defense, specifically Dwight Lowery, who had some key tackles, nice coverage, a sack and a forced fumble in a big game.
Theme Song: Seems apropos, if mean-spirited.
One Takeaway: This season, which was 2-6 at the halfway mark, is now one win away from a 7-9 playoff berth and a chance to actually pull off a home playoff win. I don't get it, but I love it.
Next Week: Go to Cat Scratch Reader for everything about the Carolina Panthers, who are on deck.
Final Word: Glorious.