This was the end, even though it wasn’t the end. This was a Falcons team with a million reasons to show up and fight like hell, even against overwhelming odds, falling just as short as you might have suspected they would. They fumbled, they misfired, they schemed poorly, and they failed. Boy, did they fail.
The Falcons paired bad luck with poor play and were down 17-3 at the half. They managed to make the game more interesting in the second half, but only in the way that narrowly losing is more interesting than getting blown out. The defense tried its ass off against a Saints team that has been scoring at a preposterous clip, but they weren’t great and the offense was downright abysmal, and the end result was a horrific loss that effectively ends the season and continues a magical one for the Saints. I was embarrassed, unhappy and resigned all at once watching it.
One of the great struggles of covering a team like the Falcons when they always find a way to fall short is keeping it from being personal. It feels personal, because it’s hard not to take a loss that wrecks your evening personally. Some have mastered it, but I have not. So in the most neutral way I can manage, let me just say that this team has no choice but to address the fact that its improvements (which were supposed to be turning a corner) have been limited, the flaws (which were supposed to be fixable) have been egregious, and the injuries are the only legitimate limiting factor this team can still point to. That’s a huge piece of the puzzle, but it does not explain how this Falcons team with all its legitimate talent can be 4-7 and look so brutally bad over and over again.
The 2018 season has five games left, but all that’s left to do is play out the string and figure out what major changes are coming. Getting injured Falcons back will help a lot in 2019, but as this year has shown us, there’s so much more to improve for an Atlanta team with a shaky offensive line, a playbook that is lackluster once teams study up on it, and a defense with holes you could drive a truck through. The coaching staff will have to explain themselves, the players will have to look in the mirror, and by hook or crook things will have to get better in 2019 or the Falcons will be entirely out of excuses, and the sweeping changes that will come will likely include the front office this time. There’s nothing else to be said, because I’m sure at least Dan Quinn and the FO will ride this year out, but they won’t be able to survive another one like this.
Here’s a fairly full drive-by-drive recap. Honestly, I got to the end and figured nobody wanted to re-live every drive.
Atlanta started the game by kicking off to New Orleans. The first Saints play was a first down pickup for Alvin Kamara, a long pickup through the air, and another good run for Kamara. Michael Thomas picked up five as Brees announced his intention to throw short as often as necessary, but then De’Vondre Campbell tackled Mark Ingram for a loss. That third down was for naught, though, because Brees found Thomas over the middle and he picked up the first. Then Brees threw to the end zone to a wide open man and got the easy touchdown. Atlanta was barely there.
Falcons 0 - Saints 7
The Falcons got nothing on a first down carry for Tevin Coleman, and then picked up a first down with a strike to Julio Jones. A downfield try to Julio failed, a penalty-marred carry for Coleman went nowhere, and 3rd and 10 featured Mohamed Sanu picking up a first down on a sharp throw by Matt Ryan. Then Ryan found Sanu down the sideline for a 37 yard gain, putting the Falcons’ on the New Orleans doorstep. Coleman’s next carry went nowhere, but the Falcons got eight yards on a pass over the middle to Julio. Then Ryan went to throw and the ball was knocked out of his hand by Marcus Williams, bouncing around before the Saints grabbed it and recovered it. A drive that went to the Saints 3 yard line got nothing.
Desmond Trufant did a nice job on first down against Michael Thomas, knocking the ball away to prevent an easy first down. A short pickup on second down set up a 3rd and 4, and then Drew Brees threw downfield and right into the leaping hands of Damontae Kazee, who ran it all the way back but was later ruled down by contact and “just” wound up with his sixth pick of the year. The announcers thought Brian Poole should have been penalized on the play, but I was fine with it, predictably.
Ryan hit Sanu for the first down over the middle on the very next play, but the next first down saw significant pressure on Ryan and he had to get rid of the ball. Atlanta was lucky not to lose another Ryan fumble when he was sacked on second down. The Falcons would ultimately settle for three points, a very unsettling development considering the opponent.
Falcons 3 - Saints 7
A quick first down for New Orleans on a play where Drew Brees actually fumbled, plus a five yard pickup on the subsequent first down, took the Saints to the second quarter with the lead.
Terrell McClain got a sack to move the Saints back to 3rd and 11. Then they converted easily with a first down to Michael Thomas, followed by a missed downfield strike to Ben Watson (thankfully) and a holding call that backed New Orleans up. It didn’t matter, because Thomas and Kamara got New Orleans to first down just the same. Then Ingram plunged ahead for nine yards, then Kamara got involved and picked up easy yardage, and then the Saints actually screwed up with a throw behind that the receiver couldn’t come up with thanks to Sharrod Neasman and settled for a chip shot field goal.
Falcons 3 - Saints 10
Julio Jones did not pick up much on a carry (?) to start the drive. Then Matt Ryan was sacked by Sheldon Rankins and lost five yards. Then Ryan tried to hit Ridley down the field, but it went through his arms as Lattimore was all over him. Punt, with a strong special teams tackle by Eric Saubert.
The Saints got rolling on the ground to try to grind down an already shaky Falcons defense. The referees finally woke up after missing PI calls against the Falcons and Saints and hit Robert Alford with a call, giving the Saints a first down just outside the 20. Alvin Kamara got a few after juking Bic Beasley, and a lot more on third down for an easy first down. Then Brees found an embarrassingly open Austin Carr in the end zone for a touchdown.
Falcons 3 - Saints 17
The Falcons needed to score to stave off the blowout, full stop. They got a 19 yard pickup to Julio Jones right away, but quickly stalled out with their non-existent ground game and yet another third down sack of Matt Ryan, but Ryan scrambled for the first down on fourth down to keep the drive alive. Short passes to Logan Paulsen and Austin Hooper followed, and then a pass to Tevin Coleman that went for a first down. Julio Jones then had a nice catch and run before going airborne and making contact with a Saints defender, forcing the ball loose. New Orleans recovered and the Falcons went into the half down two touchdowns.
A nice return by Marvin Hall was almost immediately negated by an ugly Falcons offense that got nothing on the run, nothing through the air until Julio Jones got several on third down, and then got nothing when they went for it on fourth down. Turnover on downs.
First down sack for Jack Crawford, though, and then a short pass and a straight up missed connection for Brees and Thomas on third down helped the Falcons out. The Saints then at least pretend to go for it on fourth down before running out of time and punting.
The Falcons needed three downs to get to a first down The and couldn’t do it, getting to fourth down and inches and deciding to punt. The offense had managed three points against a lackluster (but very game) Saints defense at this point.
The Saints had little trouble moving the ball to follow that, and capped it off with a touchdown.
Falcons 3 - Saints 24
The Falcons got seven quick yards to Austin Hooper and a first down, but they also didn’t waste much time quickly getting to fourth down after that, including a Matt Ryan miss way downfield. Austin Hooper bailed them out with a first down, but then nothing happened on first down and Ryan was sacked for a loss on second down. Thankfully, third down saw Ryan hit Calvin Ridley with a lob that Ridley was able to take inside the five yard line. Unfortunately, the Falcons whiffed on two straight passes before Ryan found Calvin Ridley for a touchdown in the back of the end zone.
Falcons 10 - Saints 24
The Falcons forced a three and out, with Drew Brees missing high. Penalty on the Falcons to put them in a bad position. Atlanta ball.
Matt Ryan scrambled for nine yards and then couldn’t connect with Calvin Ridley on second down. Then Sanu ran for the first down. Then Ryan’s pass was tipped and intercepted.
The rest was kind of a blur. Look, you don’t want to re-live this play-by-play, right? The Saints scored, the Falcons moved all the way downfield and looked like they might score, and then Calvin Ridley fumbled at the end of a nice catch-and-run and gave New Orleans back the ball again.
They did stop the Saints deep in New Orleans territory. Cool.
Then they scored, capping a successful drive with a touchdown pass to Tevin Coleman that brought the Falcons within three scores. I’ll bold the score.
Falcons 17 - Saints 31