What makes it truly special is that the Falcons walked away with a win, of course. After a hard-fought, borderline insane game between the two teams, the Falcons turned an overtime fumble into a 52 yard Matt Bryant field goal that sealed a 37-34 victory. For a Falcons team that has been kicked around by New Orleans for a few years now, this game had to be awfully sweet. Keep in mind that the Falcons were down 13-0, 20-7 and then saw the lead change hands numerous times before the ending.
As always, the Falcons managed to keep this one close. The difference from past years was that they did so chiefly through strong offensive line play, which led to one of the finer offensive efforts of the Mike Smith era. The closing minutes of the first half and then the second half were kind to the Falcons, and they managed to pick Drew Brees and run wild on offense well into the fourth quarter. It was an excellent day for Ryan and company.
That undersells the performance, really. This was one of the best games of Matt Ryan's career, a wire-to-wire passing festival with only a couple of poor throws mixed in. Couple that with the runs and you've got something impressive. With Levine Toilolo in the red zone and four receivers criss-crossing the fields, the Falcons will be tough to stop. Pair that with some nice running from the team yesterday and you can see why I'm so bullish on this offense.
Unfortunately, what we saw from the defense from this team was a disappointment, on balance. These Falcons looked to have held steady or improved at most positions, giving us all hope that the would be a mildly-to-greatly improved team in 2014. After one important litmus test against their greatest rival, albeit one with a great offense, it's impossible not to be wary of a team that couldn't get a pass rush and even struggled against the run at times.
We'll hope for drastic improvements in the week ahead, but heck, now is not the time to complain. The mood around this team is downright buoyant.
The full breakdown follows.
- Matt Ryan had a pocket most of the day, and he took advantage of it. He was accurate, he ran for a first down right up the middle without sliding and he was fearless about making tough throws even when the pressure did threaten. He finished the day with 31 completions, 448 yards, 3 touchdowns and no turnovers. I would say it was the greatest game of his career thus far.
For the Falcons to be great this year, or anything close to it, Ryan has to be great as well. This was a hell of a start for #2 on that front.
- The ground game was light years more effective than it was just a year ago. Jacquizz Rodgers running and spinning for a long touchdown, Steven Jackson getting tough yards, the rookie and the oft-underutilized veteran putting in great work...it was fun to watch.
- Devonta Freeman showed why so many Falcons fans are placing faith in him, fighting through tackles on an unreal second quarter catch and run that saved the Falcons' touchdown drive. The man needs to get more snaps, and he needs to get them soon.
- Antone Smith isn't consistent, but he seems to be good for one huge play per game. In this one, it was a short catch that he turned into a 50-plus yard touchdown run after he turned on the burners. That was the score that gave the Falcons their first lead of the game, so that was beautiful.
- Aside from Julio's fumble, which we'll discuss later, this was a pretty nice day for the receivers. Harry Douglas made a couple of tough sideline catches, Roddy White was money in the end zone and Jones looked as zippy and powerful as ever on his way to over 100 yards. Devin Hester used his speed extremely well as the game went on, coming up with a huge third down catch in the fourth quarter. The big surprise was Levine Toilolo, who caught a couple of passes from Ryan early and used his size and hands well in the end zone.
- Jake Matthews was unbelievable early, holding off a potent Saints pass rush and giving Ryan's blindside the kind of breather he never had in 2013. When he went down with an injury, the rest of the line stepped up in a major way, keeping the pocket clean for Matt Ryan and effectively blocking for the team's four-headed running back rotation.
- Give a special shout-out to Gabe Carimi and Lamar Holmes, handling Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan for much of today. Holmes was solid all day and Carimi stepped in cold at left tackle and played fairly well despite picking up a couple of flags.
- Paul Worrilow and Dwight Lowery were all over the field, adding a necessary physical, tackling element to a defense that lacked one all year. They combined for about 20 tackles, and against a team as slippery as the Saints, that's important.
- Desmond Trufant is just so good. A couple of tipped passes and
- Robert Alford's brilliant pass tip to save a touchdown on the Saints' second drive. That was a monster play for a young cornerback in a key situation. He repeated it later in the fourth quarter, coming up with a deflection on a key 3rd down against Drew Brees.
- Robert McClain scuffled a bit early, but erased it all with an end zone interception against Drew Brees in the third quarter, an interception that saved at least three points.
- William Moore gets our last and perhaps most important defensive mention here. His strip of Marques Colston in overtime turned a Saints first down into a fumble recovered by Joplo Bartu, giving the Falcons an opportunity.
- Matt Bryan hit two field goals over 50 yards with time running out at the end of the game and then in overtime. You cannot make this man nervous.
- Julio Jones' fumble was truly backbreaking, as the Falcons were in the Saints' red zone late in the first quarter before Jairus Byrd stripped the ball away. That's the second straight year where Julio has fumbled the ball against the Saints, and while his overall excellence as a wide receiver more than makes up for it, I hope this doesn't become a habit.
- The defense didn't start off strong against Drew Brees and company, with a lackluster pass rush linking up with poor coverage to create some pretty favorable situations for the Saints. It continued throughout the game, with the team bending at times, breaking at others against Brees, talented rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and the ground game.
The glaring inability to stop Cooks was by far the most discouraging thing I saw from these Falcons yesterday. Cooks has immense talent but is still a rookie wide receiver, and the Falcons had an incredibly tough time stopping him.Pair that with some nice runs from Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson and you feel a little queasy about the defense going forward, even if the adjustments they made after the half paid dividends.
- The pass rush will be an issue all year long, and that's a secret to absolutely no one inside the Georgia Dome or outside. The Falcons can at least be okay there, though, and obviously the Falcons were too slow to get it going in this one. They need to build on the second half, when they were at least getting into the backfield consistently.
- We're seeing the emphasis on the new calls, and it was ugly. Robert McClain didn't have a great game and was victimized more than once for hands to the face. I didn't appreciate the call early in the second half when Cooks was doing the same thing back to McClain without a call, but the Falcons need to learn from this and do their best to avoid the flag party. His interception ensures I don't care that deeply about it.
There were too many penalties on the Falcons in this one in general. Stuff like Kemal Ishmael's boneheaded hold on the fourth quarter punt that pinned the Falcons deep in their own territory was unnecessary and costly for the Falcons.
- The team's clock management late in the game was a problem, though Matt Bryant's 51 yard field goal took the team to overtime without issue. The Falcons should have been able to rush to the line and snap the ball for one last play, or call the timeout immediately. Instead, they ran the clock down to 8 seconds, attempted one unsuccessful play and left Bryant with a long attempt. It worked out, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't note the process that led there.
Game MVP: Matt Ryan. When your franchise quarterback has his best day ever, he's probably going to win this.
Game Theme Song: Triumph, indeed (NSFW)
One Thing To Take Away: The Falcons are far from a finished product, but they're capable of hanging with one of the league's best teams despite defensive shortcomings. That's majorly encouraging.
Final Word: Fantastic.