With two chances for victory, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s passes to Julio Jones in the end zone fell incomplete.

The Saints held on for a 21-16 victory Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The crowd was announced at 8,712 tickets distributed.

“You know, we gave ourselves a chance at the end,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said.

The Falcons battled back from a 21-9 deficit, but came up short on their final two drives against the No. 1 defense in the league.

The final play of the game was a pass attempt from 39 yards out to Jones.

“If it would have touched my hands, I would have caught it,” Jones said. “I got hit when the ball was coming down.”

Credit: AJC

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones on the loss to the Saints. He discusses the last play of the game and if he was hit when the ball was in the air.

Pass interference was not called as the Saints improved to 10-2, while the Falcons dropped to 4-8.

“You have to give the Saints credit,” Morris said. “They fought through an ugly, tough football game.”

The Falcons’ offense, playing with Jones and running back Todd Gurley, was stymied by the Saints until the fourth quarter. They cobbled together three field goals and got a touchdown in the final quarter to stay in the game.

The defense got a big fumble recovery and two stops to set up potential game-winning drives.

Ryan completed 19 of 39 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 80.4. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley had five catches for 108 yards and Jones had six catches for 94 yards.

Saints quarterback Taysom Hill completed 27 of 37 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with a passer rating of 107.

It was the 103rd meeting between the two rivals. The Falcons lead the series 52-51, but the Saints have won 6 of the last 7 games.

Here are five things we learned from the loss to the Saints:

1. Offense stymied. The game mirrored the previous meeting. The Falcons trailed 10-9 at the halftime and the Saints came out and scored on their first possession of the third quarter to take control of the game. They went on to win 24-9 on Nov. 22.

With the offense stymied again Sunday and the Falcons, settling for field goals, were behind 14-9 at halftime. The Saints came out on the opening possession of the third quarter and scored a touchdown to take control of the game, 21-9.

The Falcons had not scored a touchdown against the Saints since the fourth quarter of a 26-18 loss on Nov. 28, 2019. Down 26-9, Ryan tossed a 13-yard garbage time touchdown to Russell Gage with 3:26 to play. The conversion pass attempt failed.

“We certainly didn’t play good enough,” Ryan said. “We needed to be more productive particularly in the first half. We walked away with too many field goals and not a enough touchdowns. It’s disappointing any time that you play like that.”

2. Third down defense. The Falcons went three-and-out on their first two possessions. The Saints did the same on their first possession.

On their second possession, the Saints drove 87 yards and Hill connected with a wide open Tre’Quan Smith for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Free safety Ricardo Allen was the closest Falcon to him.

Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo added a 53-yard field goal to make it 7-3.

The Falcons, playing zone defenses and daring Hill to make accurate throws, could not get off the field on third downs.

The Saints converted on third down-and-13 and third down-and-17 to keep their third possession alive, but it ended with kicker Will Lutz (Georgia State) missing a 40-yard field goal attempt, wide right.

The Falcons followed with another three-and-out.

The Saints, showing little respect, went for it on a fourth-and-7, but the pass was incomplete.

The Falcons wasted a 35-yard pass play to Jones and a 15-yard run by Ito Smith. They had to settle for a 30-yard field to make it 7-6.

The Saints answered with a 11-yard touchdown pass from Hill to tight end Jared Cook (North Gwinnett) to cap a seven-play, 75-yard drive and take a 14-6 lead.

The Falcons wasted another shot at a touchdown. They used a 31-yard completion to Ridley and two penalties by New Orleans to quickly move to the Saints’ 10. Ryan threw two incompletions into the end zone before Koo made a 28-yard field goal to make it 14-9 at the half.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara scored on a 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to make it 21-9.

Falcons defensive end Steven Means sacked Hill and Deion Jones recovered with 14:39 left in the fourth quarter.

Ryan drove the Falcons 85 yards in eight plays. He capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Russell Gage with 7:43 left to make it a one-score game, 21-16.

Overall, the Saints converted on 8 of 17 third downs (47%).

“Obviously, we have to do better to get off the field,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said.

Credit: AJC

Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett on the play against the Saints.

3. Jones, Gurley return. After missing last week’s game against the Raiders, Gurley and Jones returned to action.

Gurley, who has a chronic left knee injury, played sparingly. He had just one carry for minus 1 yard until late in the game. He finished with 16 yards on eight carries.

On the potential game-winning drive with under 2 minutes to play, Gurley had was stuffed for no gain on second-and-2 from the 13. On third-and-2, he tried to bounce a run outside and was dropped for a 7-yard loss.

On fourth-and-9 from the 20, Ryan’s pass to Jones was off target.

“I actually had a corner route on that play,” Jones said. “Matt just got rid of the ball. When I came out (of his break), that’s why I was looking to go to the pylon. That’s why I wanted to keep the corner underneath me. He left it inside. Timing. He gave me an opportunity to make a play on it.”

4. No stopping Thomas: The Falcons knew that Michael Thomas was Hill’s favorite target. Morris called him Hill’s “security blanket,” leading up to the game.

But the Falcons, playing mostly zones, left enough room for Thomas to catch nine passes for 105 yards.

In the previous meeting, Thomas caught nine passes for 104 yards.

Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas picks up yardage on a catch and is sent flying by Atlanta Falcons safety Sharrod Neasman during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

5. Injury report: Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson left the game in the first quarter with a leg injury and did not return.

Means left the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury. He later returned.

Allen was evaluated for a concussion suffered in the third quarter.

Defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, the reigning NFC defensive player of the week, suffered a head/neck injury in the second half.

Running back Smith left the game with a head injury.

Falcons’ next three games

Falcons at Chargers at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 13

Buccaneers at Falcons at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20

Falcons at Chiefs at 1 p.m., Dec. 27

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