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Falcons-Saints: What we learned

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NEW ORLEANS — They are far from perfect — and, if truth be told, maybe even far from mediocre — but the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons, incredibly, have the NFC South title in their sights with one game left in the season.

After routing the New Orleans Saints 30-14 Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — completing a season sweep of the Saints, and sending New Orleans (6-9) to its fifth consecutive home loss and eliminating them from playoff contention — the Falcons can win the NFC South by defeating the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) next Sunday in Atlanta.

Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards and one touchdown and Matt Bryant kicked three field goals to provide the offensive spark.

“We’ll enjoy this tonight, but we’ll be moving on (to Carolina) pretty quickly,” Ryan said. “We’ll go ahead and make sure we have a great plan for next week.”

But it was the dormant Atlanta defense — ranked dead last in the NFL after allowing nearly 410 yards per game through 14 games — that made the difference against the league’s second-best offense.

The Falcons entered the game with a league-low 16 sacks, but they got to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times, harassed him consistently, intercepted him twice and forced two fumbles.

The last fumble came on the game’s final play — a strip sack by defensive end Kroy Biermann in the final seconds that defensive end Osi Umenyiora picked up and returned 86 yards for a score.

On his way to the end zone, Umenyiora turned to wave goodbye to the Saints, who were eliminated from the playoff picture.

“That’s about as bad a feeling as you could ever have,” said Brees, who threw for 313 yards but was picked off twice, including a pick by cornerback Robert McClain with 2:28 left with the Saints trailing 20-13 to kill any chance for a comeback. “It’s disappointing to know that with two games left we controlled our own destiny.”

When rookie running back Devonta Freeman dashed 31 yards for a touchdown with 5:42 left in the third quarter, the Falcons extended their lead to 20-7.

The critical play in the game may have come on the Saints’ next series. Brees moved the Saints to a first down at the Atlanta 14, and he completed a pass near the goal line to tight end Jimmy Graham that would have put the Saints within 20-14.

As Graham pushed his way to the goal line, he was sandwiched by safeties Dezmen Southward and Kemal Ishmael, and Ishmael reached in to strip the ball from his grasp and recover the fumble. The turnover call was upheld upon video review.

Saints coach Sean Payton did not agree.

“It’s something you can’t control,” Payton said. “There’s only one (replay) angle that matters. Do I think it was a score? Yes. The one look we had that they continued to show, it looked pretty clear, but it is what it is. They go back to New York now with that (replay), and it’s disappointing.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith said he might have a biased view, but he thought the call was correct.

“It was a critical play in the ball game,” Smith said. “We talked about attacking the ball and winning the turnover battle. That was a big-time play. He went in, raked the ball out and created the turnover. From my view, I didn’t think that the ball crossed the plane. I didn’t think there was enough evidence to overturn it. I think they got it right.”

Referee John Parry told a pool reporter after the game:

“We spent the full 60 seconds, and we looked at every replay angle. We primarily focused on the angle that was — I wouldn’t say exactly — but was pretty close to being down on the goal line to try to determine if it was either a score and or a catch/fumble recovered by Atlanta. There was nothing clear and indisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field. If we would have ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score. If we ruled catch/fumble, recovered Atlanta, nothing enough to change it.”

Brees did get the Saints within 20-14 with 5:48 left, marching 87 yards on 12 plays before hitting Graham with a 4-yard, back-shoulder throw against Ishmael. Brees completed 8 of 11 passes for 80 yards on the drive.

Trailing by six, the Saints got the ball back at their 10 with 2:40 left. But cornerback Robert McClain undercut Brees’ sideline throw for wide receiver Nick Toon for a decisive interception at the Saints’ 13. Bryant’s third field goal of the game — from 32 yards — iced the game, 23-14, with 1:56 left.

What the Falcons said:

“That was big-time play. He got a good jump on the route. He got a jump on the quarterback’s vision.” — Coach Mike Smith on the interception of Drew Brees in the final 2 1/2 minutes by cornerback Robert McClain.

“That was a good effort play. Jimmy (Graham) was in the matchup with of our other safeties, and that’s a mismatch with anybody. It was just an effort play. I didn’t want him to get in the end zone with everything on the line. Whatever it takes to win.” — Safety Kemal Ishmael on stripping Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on the goal line.

What the Saints said:

“It’s not a head-scratcher. It’s pretty clear. There are some things we have to look closely at. I really don’t look at it like it’s puzzling. The things you need to do to play consistently and win in this league, we haven’t done those consistently. We have done it at times, any yet not consistently enough.” — Coach Sean Payton on the mystery of the Saints’ 6-9 season.

What we learned about the Falcons:

1. The Falcons’ defense may be ranked near or at the bottom of the league, but they have made big strides in the last few weeks. The Falcons sacked Drew Brees five times for 42 yards in losses after having recorded just 16 sacks in the previous 14 games. They also played tight coverage, forcing Brees to hold on to the ball much longer than he likes.

“I’m proud of the guys we have in this locker room,” said cornerback Robert McClain, who intercepted Brees with 2:28 left. “We have guys who believe, and we’re going to keep fighting, regardless of anybody’s numbers — whether we’re top 5 or whatever.”

2. Wide receiver Julio Jones may be the bionic receiver. After missing last week with a severe oblique strain, which stretched from his rib cage to his hip, Jones gutted it out and caught seven passes for 107 yards. No catch was bigger than the 24-yard seam route to the New Orleans’ 3-yard line that set up Atlanta’s go-ahead touchdown at the end of the half. Jones now has 100 catches for 1,535 on the season.

“He make it easy to trust him going down the middle,” said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. “He’s such a freak, such a beast.”

–RB Devonta Freeman showed nifty feet in stepping out of a diving arm tackle by Saints S Kenny Vaccaro on his way to a 31-yard TD early in the second half, giving Atlanta a 20-7 lead. QB Matt Ryan also said the rookie Freeman did an excellent job in pass protection after being forced to play more snaps due to an injury to RB Steven Jackson.

–WR Eric Weems got a gift score — a 3-yard shovel pass from Matt Ryan — on Atlanta’s final play of the half. Ryan rolled a few step to his right, looking as though he might throw the ball into the right flat, before flipping it forward to Weems up the middle. Weems went in untouched. “That was a great play call by (offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter),” Ryan said. “You need great timing to pull it out. That’s one of the ones we practiced all week. We got the coverage we wanted, but you have to sell it.”

–K Matt Bryant has been a Saints’ assassin this season. In a 37-34 overtime victory in Atlanta to open the season, Bryant kicked a 51-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. He won it in overtime with a 52-yarder. In the 30-14 victory Sunday, Bryant kicked field goals of 44, 50 and 32. An incredible stat: opposing kickers made every field-goal attempt in the Superdome this season.

What we learned about the Saints:

1. The Saints haven’t publicized it, but tight end Jimmy Graham has not played at 100 percent this season since injuring his right shoulder in September. Three plays told you everything you needed to know. The first two came when Graham short-armed passes from Drew Brees over the middle that he normally would have vacuumed up. Graham raised his left arm but not his right, a sign he’s definitely hurting. Then, on the critical play of the game, Graham allowed safety Kemal Ishmael to strip him of the ball inches away from the goal, a touchdown that would have cut the deficit to 20-14 with more than a quarter to play. Graham caught six passes for 53 yards, but he has been playing tentatively for three months.

2. The Saints need to seriously address their offensive line in the 2015 draft and/or free agency. When Brees wasn’t running for his life, he was being pounded into the ground by the normally toothless Atlanta pass rush. Even when Brees has been able to set his feet in the pocket this season, he has been uncharacteristically off target on several throws that he would have dialed in during previous seasons. Brees deflected criticism of the offensive line after the game, but it’s a glaring weakness for an offense that relies on timing and getting the ball out quickly.

–RB Pierre Thomas missed several games earlier this year with an unspecified chest injury. He went down again in the first half with what was classified as a rib injury. Thomas caught two passes for 24 yards, and he was missed as an option in the Saints’ screen game.

–RB Mark Ingram’s rushing production has tailed off in the last month. Ingram still leads the Saints with 907 yards on 212 carries (a 4.3-yard average), but he has gained just 140 yards on 40 carries (a 3.5-yard average) in his last three games.

–QB Drew Brees made his 200th NFL start Sunday, including 142nd as a Saint. His 313 yards passing marked his 80th 300-yard passing game as a Saint and 85th game overall — second-most in NFL history. Brees (30 of 47) completed 30 or more passes for the 44th time in his career, extending his own league record.


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