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Falcons vs. Saints finale recap: The dead end

Atlanta loses one of the most lopsided games in this long and storied rivalry.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Respectability would have been enough. There was a sizable portion of the Atlanta Falcons fanbase just looking for this season to be over and Arthur Smith to be gone, but I think it has been clear for a long time that Arthur Blank would’ve liked a reason to keep Smith around. He just didn’t get one on Sunday, and the result was that we had to watch the Falcons get thrashed by the team we all hate.

The Falcons kept it competitive throughout the first half, with the team scoring a pair of touchdowns and managing a long field goal drive to go into halftime tied up at 17. It appeared we’d be headed for a hard-fought, close win either way, but the second half saw the offense’s issues with turnovers and misfires re-appear and a complete defensive meltdown en route to 31 unanswered points for New Orleans. The final score was 48-17, the most points New Orleans has ever managed against Atlanta, and a huge exclamation point on the lackluster, meandering sentence that was the 2023 season.

Will McFadden delivered a fair take yesterday on why he thought Arthur Smith should stick around—essentially, the season was derailed by personnel mistakes and turnovers more than anything the coaches did—and I respect the hell out both that read and his willingness to deliver in a decidedly anti-Smith environment. I just don’t agree with it, because all indications we have are that Smith had a significant role in selecting and nurturing these quarterbacks, and he did so without backfilling the quarterback coach role. Given that the offense struggled to frequently utilize playmakers and given how ugly the end of the season was, it came as no surprise that Arthur Blank wound up making a change in the name of salvaging fan goodwill and trying to avoid the same mistake he made in 2020 when he put faith in an incumbent coach finding another gear.

Regardless of where you stand on Smith, it must be said that these past two games (and two out of the last three, with the Panthers game in the mix) were so disappointing that it beggars belief. The Falcons had all the incentive in the world to knock off Carolina, keep their season alive by beating Chicago, and at least salvaging pride against New Orleans in the final game of the season. The fact that they were listless in the rain against the Panthers and got blown out in back-to-back weeks by the Bears and Saints reflects poorly on everyone, and the lasting image of this season might be the Saints getting in that victory formation touchdown just to rub a little more salt in the wound against their biggest rival. The fact that they were able to do so—to win by 30 points—should make it clear how much work is ahead this offseason, no matter who coaches this football team. Getting quarterback right and improving both sides of the ball has to be a priority, or the Falcons will probably stay stuck in mediocrity with a tougher slate on the way in 2024.

I want to believe those brighter days are coming, but obviously this season burnt those of who had any level of optimism pretty badly. Let’s see what the changes are and then see what lies ahead, because very little about the 2023 is worth dwelling on.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • A rare productive opening drive. After some early fits and starts, Scotty Miller got wide open and took it to the 20, Bijan Robinson ran hard to pick up yardage, and Desmond Ridder dealt on a nine yarder to Drake London and then a sharp touchdown throw to Jonnu Smith to put the Falcons on the board first. Too often in 2023, those opening drives were useless, so that was nice to see. The first half gave us some of the better passing we saw with Ridder under center all year, and let’s discuss that a little more below.
  • Desmond Ridder’s first half was his best of the year, and Arthur Smith’s decision to go into his bag and make it relatively easy for the young quarterback was also a wise one. The Falcons gave Ridder good looks routinely and he took advantage, throwing zippy passes past defenders and making quick decisions without having to read the entire field to get the job done. The end results was two first half touchdowns, an extremely high completion percentage, and three scoring drives in total. What might have been if Ridder had been sharper and Smith had been able to find more workable stretches like that throughout the year. Unfortunately, it didn’t continue in the second half.
  • Bijan Robinson did all he could. He didn’t have a ton of success on the ground, with just four carries for 13 yards in the first half, but he got more yardage than you’d expect with the blocking. The highlight of his day was a 70-plus yard catch where Ridder zipped one by a defender’s hands and Robinson did the rest, turning on the jets to get away from defenders and finding his way to a touchdown to put the Falcons up 14-7. He finished with a career-high 100-plus yards receiving and a career-high seven catches, showing his promise as a receiving option even on another quiet day on the ground.
  • If this is it for Calais Campbell in particular and Bud Dupree to a lesser extent, they at least both went out with sacks for Atlanta. Campbell was far better and far more durable than we had any right to expect given his age, and he poured a lot into this franchise in a tough year he clearly expected more from. Ditto Dupree, who was a pleasant surprise as a more productive pass rusher than anticipated and a quality run defender who I would like to see return. Kudos to both of them, even if they were limited bright spots in an ugly day for the defense.
  • Nate Landman had a couple of nice run stops and a punchout, playing with energy until the very end. The Falcons will view Troy Andersen and Kaden Elliss as their ideal 2024 starters, but Landman is a high-end reserve they’ll be thrilled to welcome back this year.
  • Richie Grant had a fun sack on Derek Carr at the end of the game, when Carr took an unnecessary shot because the Saints wanted to be cute. Look, I don’t know what you want from me. The weren’t many positives here.
  • It’s over. This season was so hard to watch after we invested hope in it and the Falcons got off to an uneven but promising start, and just knowing changes and improvements may be on the way and we don’t have to watch them muddle through a mediocre season any longer is genuinely a blessing. I’m thankful all of you stuck around through it all, but I really hope our faith and loyalty is rewarded in 2024.

The Ugly

  • MyCole Pruitt’s ill-timed headbutt felt symbolic of so much that goes wrong with this football team. Driving after Desmond Ridder hit Scotty Miller for a big gain and then Drake London and Bijan Robinson got the Falcons inside the 10, the Falcons seemed poised to knock one in before Pruitt’s penalty backed them up. It didn’t prove costly—Atlanta scored two plays later—but 2023 was the year of this team shooting themselves in the foot and that felt emblematic of that.
  • Penalties were a problem for a team that had settled in without a lot of penalties. Even if you think the call against Clark Phillips for unnecessary roughness was questionable—and I did—the holding calls, pass interference, and multiple neutral zone infractions added up and made life far easier for a Saints team that did not need the help on Sunday. It is possible to imagine this game unfolding in slightly different fashion had the Falcons not extended Saints drives and killed their own in this fashion, at least before things spun out of control.
  • Desmond Ridder’s interception to start the second half was abysmal. He hesitated before throwing and then sent it sailing right into a defender’s hands, giving the Saints a gimme turnover and a short field to work with. The predictable falling apart followed that, with Ridder managing a few nice plays but also delivering risky and off-target throws as the offense effectively shut down in the second half. He may well be the team’s backup in 2024, but he certainly won’t factor in to the starting competition after the inconsistent year we saw from him in that role in 2023, and the only silver lining is that the team can no longer try to merely get by at quarterback. Arthur Smith’s faith in Ridder may well be a major part of why he is in ond drive for the Saints was ultimayelt doomed.
  • The first Saints drive was ugly as sin. The Falcons tackled poorly, seemed not to anticipate Taysom Hill running the ball under center, and fell apart in coverage, with A.J. Terrell falling down working in the end zone against rookie A.T. Perry and allowing the touchdown to give New Orleans an easy road to tying things up. After playing sharp football most of the year, the Falcons had some real lapses late, and that continued into the second quarter, where the Falcons surrendered another long touchdown drive.
  • The secondary had such a good year, but down the stretch they went into a deep dark hole. A.J. Terrell tripped on multiple plays, including the touchdown to Perry, and Clark Phillips and Richie Grant were close but simply did not play the ball well on a pair of deep touchdown strikes from Derek Carr in the third quarter that gave New Orleans a big lead. This is a young, talented group, but Grant is almost certainly not returning in anything larger than a reserve role and the Falcons will have to at least strongly mull giving Terrell his big contract this offseason given the way he has faded down the stretch.
  • It was also the second straight week where the run defense was gashed, and this was far worse than allowing big yardage to a very good Khalil Herbert and a top-shelf scrambler in Justin Fields. After largely bottling up Taysom Hill last time, a defense down Kaden Elliss after a bit allowed Hill, rookie Kendre Miller, and Jamaal Williams to roll for easy yardage all day long, ending the year on a sour note. The team’s attrition up front was a big problem—they lost Grady Jarrett and Kentavius Street and bled useful pieces all year—but they need to add more talent to the front seven in a major way this coming offseason.
  • Bradley Pinion has been a good punter all year, but his shanks and poor punts have tended to be ill-timed. That was certainly the case on Sunday, with a late second quarter punt going maybe 25 yards and setting the Saints up with fantastic field position. The Falcons were fortunate to hold the Saints to just a field goal on that drive, but it was still a costly mistake, as it gave New Orleans the lead back.
  • I can’t get over this being the effort the team was able to put on the field with so much on the line. The first half was at least passable, especially for the defense, but getting outscored 31-0 in the second half is almost unbelievable given the potential playoff and job-related stakes for the franchise. To me, the best argument against retaining Arthur Smith was the lack of consistency and the inability for this team to deliver its best shot in tough, must-win games, something we saw consistently throughout his tenure. It’s unfortunate that perhaps the best example of that inconsistency and poor play came against the Saints; the fact that Dennis Allen may have lost control of his team as they scored the final touchdown out of a victory formation because the players determined they wanted to get Jamaal Williams a touchdown and an incentive is not really a consolation.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Bijan Robinson for turning in the best play of the day and putting together his finest day as a receiver, I couldn’t give it to anyone else with a straight face.

One Takeaway

This team was mediocre all year and terrible down the stretch when they really needed to be excellent; that told Falcons brass everything they needed to know.

Next Week

Sweet, sweet offseason hopes and dreams.

Final Word