The Falcons can start planning for their roster overhaul future.
Behind the determined running of Alvin Kamara, the Saints pummeled the Falcons 30-20 in the regular-season finale before a sparse gathering on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Saints, with a shot to make the playoffs, improved to 9-8 on the season, while the Falcons finished in third place in the NFC South at 7-10.
“This team, we learned how to win close games,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “We went 7-2 in one-possession games. We scrapped and clawed. I definitely feel like we’ve got a good foundation and that better days are ahead.”
The Saints needed the Rams to beat the 49ers to make the playoffs, but instead Los Angeles lost in overtime 27-24 after a costly interception thrown by Matthew Stafford.
With a late touchdown pass to Russell Gage, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan moved into ninth place on the all-time touchdown pass list with 367, moving ahead of Eli Manning.
Here are the five things we learned from the game:
1. Turnovers costly: After taking a 14-6 lead in the second quarter, the Saints used two Falcons’ turnovers to blow the game open.
On a deep ball intended for wide receiver Russell Gage, Ryan tossed an interception to Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo, who had a 17-yard return before being tackled by Mike Davis. Gage didn’t immediately tackle Adebo when he was on the ground.
The defense held the Saints to a 37-yard field goal to make it 17-6.
On the Falcons’ next play from scrimmage, Ryan tossed a short pass out to running back Mike Davis, who was body slammed by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. Davis fumbled and linebacker Kwon Alexander scooped up the ball and returned it 8 yards to the 11-yard line.
Three plays later, quarterback Trevor Siemian tossed a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Juwan Johnson to make it 24-6 at halftime. Siemian was on in relief of Taysom Hill, who suffered a foot injury.
In the third quarter, the Falcons had a promising drive start at the Saints’8 yard line when Ryan’s pass on fourth-and-2 was batted down by Saints defensive end Cam Jordan. Later, running back Qadree Ollison added a 19-yard touchdown run to make it 24-13.
Davis loss another fumble with 10:42 to play. Alexander forced the fumble.
“Obviously, that was disappointing to turn the ball over three times,” Smith said. “All of them were at the start of the drive and put the defense out there in a lot of bad spots. We battled. But usually when the turnover margin is like that and you kind of hand them things, that usually the way it goes.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
Smith thought the team still tried to battle back.
“We fought,” Smith said. “We tried to do everything that we could to get back in this football game. Our team doesn’t quit, but obviously we came up short.”
2. Ryan’s passing prowess: Ryan moved into ninth place past Eli Manning with 367 career touchdown passes.
It was Ryan’s 20th touchdown pass of the season and he became the fifth quarterback to reach 20 touchdown passes in 13 consecutive seasons, joining Tom Brady, Dree Brees, Brett Favre and Philip Rivers.
Ryan’s streak of 10 straight seasons of passing for more than 4,000 yards was broken.
Ryan needed 248 yards passing to reach 4,000 on the season to run his streak to 11, dating back to 2011. He finished with 216 yards passing.
Ryan’s streak of 10 seasons was the longest active streak and the second longest in NFL history.
Ryan tossed an interception in the second quarter to give him 12 on the season.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
“I’m proud of how long it lasted for sure, but the objective is to be playing now and have the opportunity,” Ryan said. “From that standpoint, statistical stuff is very nice and I’m proud of it. But at the same time, I really care about winning.”
It’s the Falcons fourth straight season of not making the playoffs.
“I want to be playing in the playoffs and making a push to win a championship,” Ryan said. “That, to me, is the more important goal as we move forward.”
3. Pitts misses Ditka mark: Falcons rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who has a hamstring injury, played and had two catches for 8 yards.
Pitts needed 59 yards to break Mike Ditka’s record for most yards receiving in a season by rookie tight end. Ditka’s mark was set in 1961 during a 14-game season. Pitts played in the league’s first 17-game regular-season.
“Yeah, he did do it in three games less,” Pitts said on Thursday. “So, credit to him. He is one of the greatest. But I would love to (get the record).”
Pitts suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter last Sunday against the Bills. Pitts had two catches for 61 yards and set the new team rookie mark for yards receiving in a season with 1,018.
“A lot of guys would not have played (with the injury),” Smith said. “I appreciated him going out there and trying to help us.”
4. Gossett at left guard: Colby Gossett, who had not started an NFL game since the 2018 season with Arizona, started at left guard for the Falcons against the Saints.
Rookie Jalen Mayfield, who has a back injury, was inactive for the game.
Gossett, 26, of Cumming, played at North Forsyth High and Appalachian State.
Gossett opted out of the 2020 season. He was one of the final players cut by the Browns in August. The Falcons claimed him off waivers on Sept. 1.
Gossett, 6-foot-5 and 331 pounds, was a sixth-round pick by the Vikings in 2018. He’s also spent time with the Patriots.
Gossett started in four losses in Games 13, 14, 15 and 16 of the 2018 season for the Cardinals.
Gossett, who 6-foot-5 and 311 pounds, played 282 snaps for the Cardinals in 2018. He’s played 24 offensive snaps for the Falcons this season over 13 games.
Gossett played at Appalachian State when Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford was on the staff 2013-2015.
5. 2022 Opponents, draft spot: With the Falcons finishing in third place, their opponents for next season are set. The Falcons will play their NFC South teams — New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Carolina — home and away.
The home games will include: Arizona, San Francisco, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago and the Los Angeles Chargers.
The away games will include: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle and Washington.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.