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Falcons vs. Saints recap: Take skill and resilience, add luck, blend until smooth

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Atlanta’s 8-5 thanks to a hard-fought, absurd win.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Every Falcons-Saints game winds up being wild. That usually is because these two teams are engaged in a shootout that is light on defense and heavy on offense, which means high scoring and a lot of fun and stress for both sides. Thursday night’s game was a different beast entirely.

Matt Ryan threw three picks and almost threw a fourth, including a truly bewildering end zone lob to Julio Jones that no one on earth thought was a good idea. They backed themselves up and screwed up a couple of drives with penalties, as they are wont to do. They got very little out of their pass catching options outside of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and they let Michael Thomas run free against them for much of the game. Add all those disparate elements together without knowing the final score and you’d probably chalk this up as a loss.

The fact that it wasn’t simultaneously says a lot about this team’s resilience and a lot about the absurd degree of difficulty for the Saints. New Orleans lost Alvin Kamara early, and as we quickly learned, they are just not the same offense without the dynamic rookie back in the lineup. They settled for a lot of quick first down passes and semi-effective runs to Mark Ingram, but the Falcons managed to largely bottle them up, and it’s a miracle they only allowed 17 points considering Ryan’s three picks. Couple that with the offense coming alive a bit at the end and Matt Bryant’s ridiculous leg and the Falcons were able to eke out enough points.

That was the resilience side of the coin. The luck side had a lot to do with the Saints themselves, who picked up penalties that ranged from aggressively dumb (Sean Payton running onto the field at the end of the game) to extremely questionable (a roughing the passer call on Sheldon Rankins that looked a lot more like a light, barely late shove). The combination was enough for a three point win.

That was really the story of this game: Both teams frantically trying to bail the other one out, with two weary defenses keeping it close. There will be a lot of scrutiny by Saints fans of the referees, a lot of it justified, but the bottom line is that the Falcons did impressive work slowing this Saints attack, and New Orleans was just dealing with too many injuries and too much fatigue to hang in. It’s not the most skillful, beautiful win in the long history of this rivalry, but we’ll take it just as New Orleans would’ve taken it had everything flipped.

Atlanta remains in control of their playoff destiny, needing to win their final three games to ensure they get in, and needing to win at least two of their final three to have a good shot. One of those games will be against an angry, vengeful Saints team on the road, but it’s a comfort to know that team is not invincible, and the Falcons still have these kind of hideous, resilient wins in them so late in the year. They might just pull this thing off, knock on all the wood you can find. Even if they don’t, a win against the Saints is as sweet as nectar, regardless of how it occurs.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Devonta Freeman runs like a madman, and I love it. The Falcons had a lot of success when they just gave Freeman the ball, blocked semi-effectively, and let him go. He runs with a frightening blend of speed and power, and it’s not an exaggeration to say he kept them in this game when so many other things were going wrong.
  • Heck, they had a lot of success with Tevin Coleman, too. He showed great balance in this game, something that can be a weakness, and gouged the Saints for a few big gains.
  • Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu basically were the passing offense for Atlanta. They combined for 181 yards and Matt Ryan’s lone touchdown pass of the day, and Ryan only threw for 221 yards last night. Jones repeatedly got open over the middle, while Sanu fought through trash and picked up that touchdown. You’d be hard-pressed to find a duo that will wear you down more throughout the course of a game.
  • Look, it did not work, but we are never going to be able to say that Steve Sarkisian has no creativity or imagination again after he sent Ty Sambrailo and Dontari Poe out wide on a second down in the red zone. The ball predictably went through Sambrailo’s hands, so it wasn’t a smart call, but it was kind of glorious in its own way.
  • Dontari Poe’s sack of Drew Brees was a simple case of a big man powering his way to a sack. He’s playing very well of late.
  • Then there was the Adrian Clayborn sack, which was a maximum effort sort of play. Clayborn got routed around Drew Brees by Terron Armstead and wound up well behind him, but fought his way to his feet, came up behind a backpedaling Brees and drove him to the turf, killing a critical fourth quarter Saints drive.
  • Deion Jones is my MVP simply because he saved the game. Drew Brees tried to go high for a touchdown pass to end it in the fourth quarter and sort of forgot that Deion Jones was there, and Jones made a supremely athletic leaping interception to put the Falcons’ offense back on the field just needing to get a first down and grind out the clock. What an amazing play. The fact that he was one of the team’s most alert, sure tacklers on the night only helps his case.
  • The defense was nothing short of stellar most of the night. The Saints defense was getting penalized at a wild rate, but the offensive calls weren’t so unbalanced, and the Saints offense was healthier than the defense. It didn’t matter to Atlanta, which allowed a short scoring drive, sacked Brees twice on third down, and got a timely Deion Jones pick to win. That’s the kind of effort they’re going to need to beat the Saints again and triumph over the Panthers.

We also learned that this Saints offense is only light years more dynamic than it was in years past because of Alvin Kamara, I think. Without him in the game, the Saints played pretty well but couldn’t outrun this speedy Falcons defense, and it ultimately cost them the game.

  • Matt Bryant had to hit a critical 52 yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter to give the Falcons a 20-17 lead....and of course he did. Occasional hiccup aside, Bryant truly is money.
  • The Falcons caught some breaks in this one. If the Vikings got away with a lot of holding--they did—and the Panthers got away with some borderline plays in their first matchup with the Falcons, the Saints got a ticky tack roughing the passer penalty, a series of injuries, and a few other more legitimate penalties that aren’t always called. I don’t necessarily feel good about that, but there’s no point in pretending those things did not benefit Atlanta. We’ll cover this from a different angle down in The Ugly.

The Ugly

  • Matt Ryan had his ugliest game in a long time. His pick at the end of the first half was weird, but there was some question about whether Julio Jones was held and whether Ryan saw something we didn’t. The second one was clearly Austin Hooper’s fault, as the throw just bounced off him and into a defender’s hands. The third, though, was one of the worst picks of Ryan’s entire career, a line drive throw to a clearly covered Julio Jones in the back of the end zone that was easily intercepted. He almost threw a fourth one in the third quarter to Manti Te’o, of all people, but the linebacker dropped it. Then he had one of his infamous Matt Ryan slides on second down in the red zone in the fourth quarter, sliding well before contact and coming up short.

I don’t know if the pressure got to him, if he just got rattled by the first two picks (one of which was obviously on Hooper, as I mentioned), or what, but Ryan was brutal by his lofty standards, and really by much less lofty standards, as well. If the Falcons are going to stretch their season out into January, Ryan’s got to avoid games like that.

  • Despite popular opinion on the subject, most NFL coaches are not great at managing the clock. Dan Quinn may not be unique, but his baffling decision to not call a timeout as the clock ran down from about 25 seconds to 12 at the end of the first half was weird and certainly played a role in the Falcons’ subsequent turnover.
  • It was just not a good game at all for Quinn, who is making weird, impulsive decisions in-game. Case in point: With the Saints driving late, the Falcons had a chance to accept a holding call and back the team up to 3rd and 11 instead of 4th and short. It could have been a catastrophic mistake for the Falcons, especially after the Saints easily converted that fourth and short. Deion Jones’ leaping interception saved the game, but Quinn really tried to give it away with some of his more questionable decisions, and he has got to stop doing that.
  • That end of the first half was, in a word, incredible. The Falcons let the clock run down before calling a second timeout after a reviewed call, and then Matt Ryan seemed visibly confused before Atlanta got their next play off. That play was a lousy pick by Matt Ryan that may or may not have involved some Marshon Lattimore contact and weird Julio Jones route running, followed by a penalty on the Saints that brought us to halftime. The Falcons were extraordinarily lucky that didn’t turn into at least three New Orleans points.
  • And it got worse! Matt Ryan delivered a ball into a tight window to Austin Hooper to start the second half, but Hooper screwed up the played royally and it bounced into the waiting arms of a Saints defender. New Orleans would score a touchdown swiftly after that, putting the Falcons down by a touchdown. It was an extraordinarily costly mistake, the kind that Hooper has made too many times in 2017.
  • Let’s be blunt here: If the Saints don’t have injuries piling up and a raft of dumb penalties—they gave the Falcons eight first downs by the first quarter!—Atlanta’s probably barely in this one, no matter how good the defense looked. The NFL is the NFL and you can’t control for variables like that, but there have been too many games where the Falcons have just riddled their feet with bullets.

    And you really hate the injuries, regardless of the opponents. New Orleans got a ridiculous number of ailments throughout the game, likely thanks to a short week and the fast that they are a fast-paced team in the first place, and some of those injuries will have lasting repercussions for them. Thursday night games really suck, but the Falcons have to be aware they’re not likely to get this kind of luck a second time, particularly in New Orleans.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Deion Jones. He owns the Saints.

One Takeaway

This defense has a lot of heart and skill, and while it hasn’t always come together in a satisfying way, they’re well-positioned to keep this team in games over the final three weeks of the season.

Next Week

The Falcons get a long layoff until their Monday Night Football scrape with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Be sure to go visit Bucs Nation, and we’ll see if the Falcons can make it two in a row in primetime.

Final Word