Atlanta’s night began with a “bang” in the form of a 76-yard touchdown drive on the team’s opening possession. Steven Jackson plunged in for a 1-yard score at the 8:51 mark of the 1st quarter, and from that moment, it was clear that this would be a competitive game.
Following the Jackson touchdown, the teams traded scores for the rest of the 1st half, with Ben Watson and Jimmy Graham (on a beautiful double-move that made William Moore look utterly silly) tallying two touchdowns for the Saints, and Matt Bryant splitting the uprights with two 2nd quarter field goals for the Birds. Those outputs took a 14-13 margin into halftime for the Saints, and there were signs that the two teams would get into a good, old-fashioned offensive battle.
Then, the second half ground to a halt.
As you can see by the final score, there were exactly three points scored in total during the game’s final 30 minutes, and they came on a Garrett Hartley field goal midway through the 3rd quarter. The Falcons stalled on their first 2 drives of the half, collecting just 19 yards on 9 plays, but then, the missed opportunities that have plagued the team all season reared their ugly heads.
Darius Johnson, who had a wonderful first half, put the ball on the turf during the 3rd drive, wasting what was an 11-play, 60-yard drive, and giving away a sure-fire scoring drive for the Birds. The young wide receiver’s turnover didn’t seem to be an absolute killer at the time, but what we didn’t know was that the Falcons would only have one more possession in the game.
On the final drive, Matt Ryan directed a 12-play, 57-yard march, but an untimely sack left the team with a 4th-and-15 deep in Saints territory while trailing by the 17-13 margin. Mike Smith then elected to kick a controversial field goal, and Matt Bryant seemingly put 3 points on the scoreboard by splitting the uprights from 52 yards away. Unfortunately, Saints head coach Sean Payton grabbed a timeout just in time, and Bryant’s “second” attempt missed wide-left to virtually end the night for Atlanta.
In my view, the field goal wasn’t the ideal move, but at this stage, it’s almost futile to make an argument against it. Hindsight indicates that Smith “should” have gone for the first down, but the percentages are wildly against succeeding in that spot, and Matt Bryant has been ultra-reliable all season long. To be honest, there are other things to focus on during the loss.
Offensively, Matt Ryan looked much, much better in this spot, but I have a feeling he’ll be criticized for only putting up 13 points. Ryan finished 30 for 39 through the air, garnering 297 yards in the game, and he was extremely crisp for the majority of the night. With some help, the Birds would have put up some more points, but this isn’t the time for negativity surrounding Ryan.
Even the running game was effective (at least reasonably) in this game, as Steven Jackson notched 63 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. As a team, the Falcons managed only 91 yards in the game, but with only 22 carries, that is a more than respectable total for what was the 31st-ranked rushing offense in the league.
The defense also performed admirably against a high-powered offense, and holding the Saints to 17 points should all but assure a victory in a normal game. Drew Brees got his numbers (278 yards and 2 touchdowns), but I thought Pierre Thomas (and his 130 total yards) was the X-factor for New Orleans. Thomas seemed to make every play at the perfect time, and the Saints’ performance on 3rd down (7 for 13) aided in their win.
This was a far departure from the utter embarrassment in Tampa Bay, but again, we bring you news of a Falcons defeat. There is little shame in losing to a quality Saints team, even at home, but losing a close-fought battle with self-inflicted wounds makes this one nearly as difficult to swallow. At 2-9, the Falcons have now “clinched” the first losing season of the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era, and it’s going to be a long couple of weeks as the team plays out the string.