This was dominance...for a half. In the second half, consumed by thoughts of major milestones and weary from a long season, the Falcons did just enough to hang on and win. The net result is the same, however, so we’ll shake off those ugly plays and look forward to what’s ahead.
The Atlanta Falcons just needed a win to seal up a bye in the postseason, ultimately. That, an 11-5 record, and a clean sweep of the New Orleans Saints will earn you my love and respect, regardless of how you stumbled down the stretch in your final game. And that first half, where the Falcons put up 35 effortless points and destroyed the Saints defense, will erase any unpleasant memories, too.
This was a fitting capper to a regular season that was thrilling, record-breaking, and rewarding to watch, but also full of fears and doubts and shadows that always follow Falcons fans around everywhere. Atlanta will head into the postseason with the league’s best offense, a shaky defense, and a mix of limitless upside and a high potential for failure if that defense leaks like a sieve and the offense has a bad day. I believe, though, that there’s some winning in this team’s blood, and that we should probably quit doubting their potential. I’m fearful they’ll lose in two weeks, or three weeks, or in February, but not as much as I so often am.
On to the full recap, the last of its kind for this 2016 regular season.
- Matt Ryan stayed in this one too long, likely because the Falcons were afraid the high-powered Saints offense could drive a comeback (it nearly did) and because they wanted to get him above 5,000 yards and burnish his MVP case (which they couldn’t do). He still finished the game with over 300 yards and four touchdown passes, and caps his year with the franchise record for yards, yards per attempt, and touchdown passes. This is a historic year, and I’m hopeful it’ll win Ryan the MVP.
- Devonta Freeman uncorked a ridiculous 70-plus yard touchdown run in this one, and while he had a relatively quiet day otherwise, he finishes another stellar season with a large number of eye-popping carries, over 1,000 yards, and a deserved reputation as one of the league’s better backs. I expected his numbers to dip a bit this year, and I’ll eat some crow there.
- Tevin Coleman did improve as I thought, though! He’s the clear second option in this attack, but he had 8 carries for 44 yards and was a major weapon throughout the season for the Falcons, especially early in the year through the air.
- You couldn’t call it a pedestrian day for Julio Jones, but it did seem like an easy one. He went for 6 catches, 97 yards, and a touchdown, and finishes the year third in receiving yardage in the NFL despite only having 76 catches (he had 136 a year ago). The offense was much more efficient across the board, but Julio still ate and ate and ate, and remains a tremendous asset.
- The Falcons got solid days from all their other receivers, as well. Mohamed Sanu had four catches for 32 yards, one of them a nice touchdown grab, and was the man who managed to corral the last onside kick attempt from the Saints. Justin Hardy had four catches for 43 yards and a touchdown, while Aldrick Robinson continued to operate as a useful threat with two receptions for 36 yards. The Falcons, as a reminder, did not have Austin Hooper or Taylor Gabriel in this one, which tells you a lot about why this offense is so fearsome.
- Kyle Shanahan had a strange second half, I thought, with the Falcons throttling down a bit and failing to do much more than pick up a solitary field goal. He’s had a tremendous season that should get him head coaching interviews, though, and the first half was a master class in attacking New Orleans’ many weaknesses, something he’s done all season to nearly every opponent. He’s had an up-and-down coaching career and his first year in Atlanta was, to put it mildly, unpopular, but Shanny’s gotten his reputation back and then some with this high-powered offense.
- Vic Beasley got hurt, seemed questionable to come back, and then sacked Drew Brees. He finished with a league-high 15.5 sacks. He’s pretty good.
- Jalen Collins had his second straight game with an interception, this time picking Drew Brees on a critical Saints drive in the fourth quarter with New Orleans down 19 and trying to make a game of it. He had his struggles in coverage yesterday, but on balance, he’s been a drastically improved player in 2016, and the Falcons might actually have four (or even five, if you like C.J. Goodwin enough) quality cornerbacks.
- Keanu Neal hits like an absolute train. Unfortunately, he sometimes hurts himself doing so, but it’s impressive even so, and he forced a fumble in this one.
- The Falcons simply couldn’t get much in the way of offense going in the second half, and combined with a defense that understandably had its second half struggles against a strong Saints offense, that made for some pretty miserable viewing.
- Robert Alford, Keanu Neal, Brian Poole (briefly), and Vic Beasley all exited this game with injuries at one time or another, and I may be missing someone with my cursed short term memory. We’ll have to hope all are healthy for the team’s first playoff game, but at least they’ve got two weeks.
- It was against the Saints, but I think you’re kidding yourself if you’re not a little worried about how this defense is going to fare in the postseason, where every team outside of Seattle and New York has an intimidating offense.
We’ll give to Matt Ryan, the hopeful NFL MVP, but let’s give it to the whole team for their work this season. We’re very kind and generous.
The Falcons are playoff bound, their offense is still incredibly potent, and it’s been one hell of a season. That’s three takeaways, but hell, who is counting?
A bye week! We don’t know who the Falcons will play after that.