Saints storm back to defeat Falcons, 27-26

The post-Matt Ryan era started in ugly fashion.

In the Falcons’ first game since trading Ryan, the only player in franchise history to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, to the Colts, coach Arthur Smith was hot after his team collapsed in the fourth quarter of a 27-26 loss to the rival Saints on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We’ll get another shot at them down in New Orleans,” Smith said. “We can’t wait. So, write whatever y’all want. The same guys that ranked us 45th (out of 32 teams) buried us in May. Bury us again because we don’t care. We’ll get back to work.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota chats with the media about the team's season-opening loss to the Saints on Sunday.

The Falcons will return to work in a bad mood after blowing a 26-10 lead in which they dominated for 3 ½ quarters. Wil Lutz, who played at Georgia State, made a 51-yard field goal with 19 seconds left to lift the Saints to victory.

Quarterback Jameis Winston got hot late and led the Saints on three scoring drives.

Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo lined up for a 63-yard field goal with two seconds left, but it was blocked.

The Saints start the season 1-0, and the Falcons are 0-1. The series between the two rivals is now tied 53-53.

“They made the plays, and we didn’t get to the quarterback,” Smith said. “For 3 ½ quarters we dominated the line of scrimmage.”

The Falcons wasted a fine rushing performance by running back Cordarrelle Patterson and a four-sack performance by the defense. Patterson rushed 22 times for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Winston cut up the Falcons’ secondary in the fourth quarter. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

“Blame me,” Smith said. “We’ll get better from this. We’ll learn from this mistake. There is a lot of ways to look at it. Easy narratives. It is what it is. We lost the game. We didn’t make enough plays.”

This one is going to sting the Falcons for a while.

“We had chances to put them away,” Smith said. “We turned the ball over in the red zone. We had the penalty, that was probably a four-point swing. We really could have put them away. You have to give the Saints credit. They made one more play than we did.”

Marcus Mariota started at quarterback for Atlanta and put together a crafty performance that included some timely passing and designed runs. He was not sacked, but had a fumble and bobbled a snap on a key third-and-1 late in the game.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons offensive lineman Jake Matthews reacts to the season-opening loss against the Saints.

“That was 100% on me,” Mariota said. “We had a great look for the play we called. I tried to cheat it and get back a little quicker so I would have had an opportunity to read it a little bit better. Something that you take for granted. Unfortunately, it got away from us.”

Mariota completed 20 of 33 passes for 215 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a 78.9 passer rating. He rushed 12 times for 72 yards after running back Damien Williams left the game with a rib injury and did not return.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help this team win,” Mariota said. “I love playing with these guys.”

If the Falcons had picked up a first down, they could have run out the final minute. On fourth-and-1, the Falcons punted.

“I want the ball every play,” Patterson said when asked if wanted the ball on fourth-and-1. “That’s not possible. I (don’t) have enough stamina for the ball every play. We had a good play called. It was a bad snap or whatever happened on the snap exchange. That’s something we’ve been working on. Bad things happen, and you just have to move on. Move forward. Whatever Coach calls, we’re going to go with it. You think we tried to go out and mess up the snap and all that stuff. We didn’t. (Stuff) happens, man.”

The Saints got the ball on the 20-yard line after a holding penalty on long snapper Liam McCullough. They had 48 seconds remaining and no timeouts.

Winston tossed a 40-yard pass to Jarvis Landry and a 17-yarder to Juwan Johnson to quickly get into Lutz’s range.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons defensive star Grady Jarrett talks about the heartbreaking loss to the Saints in the season opener Sunday.

Atlanta’s defense had swarmed Winston for three quarters.

The last time the Falcons had four sacks in a game was 52 games ago against Green Bay in a 34-20 loss on Dec. 9, 2018.

Defensive end Grady Jarrett (1.5 sacks), outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie (1), outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter (0.5) and inside linebacker Mykal Walker (1) led the pass rush that also registered eight hits on Winston.

But the Falcons couldn’t get to Winston late.

“The passes were a little quicker, and they changed up protections,” Jarrett said. “They slid to me a little more. Just moving the pocket a little bit. They started being a little bit more mobile as far as moving the pocket. They made some adjustments. We just have to make some as well.”

The Falcons held a 16-7 lead at halftime as they outgained the Saints 230 total yards to 104.

Patterson had 11 rushes for 83 yards at the half, including a 5-yard touchdown run in which he powered through four Saints defenders and bullied his way into the end zone from 2 yards.

Patterson’s touchdown put the Falcons up 10-7 in the second quarter.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who’d rushed 30 times for 146 yards in the last meeting, was kept in check.

The Falcons had trouble with Saints backup quarterback Taysom Hill, who broke loose for a 57-yard gain and later for an 11-yard touchdown run to put the Saints up 7-3.

Other than Hill’s runs, the Saints couldn’t muster much offense early.

The Saints added a 49-yard field goal by Lutz on their first possession of the second half. He’d missed a 44-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter that would have put the Saints up 10-3.

The Falcons answered with a 2-yard touchdown run by Mariota to make it 23-10 in the third quarter. Koo added a 27-yard field goal to push the lead to 26-10.

The defense created a turnover when Walker knocked the ball off Saints running back Mark Ingram. Rashaan Evans caught the ball and ran 1 yard to the Saints’ 36.

The Falcons went on the move, but Mariota fumbled on the Saints’ 5-yard line, and it was recovered by safety Tyrann Mathieu.

Winston tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas with 11:12 to play. He also completed a two-point conversion pass to rookie Chris Olave to make it a one-score game, 26-18.

The Saints forced the Falcons to punt with 7:12 left.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo discusses his potential game-winning field-goal try Sunday against the Saints.

Winston zipped the Saints down the field as the Falcons’ pass rush couldn’t get to him at clutch time. Winston tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Thomas to make it 26-24 with 3:38 to play.

Ingram was stopped on the two-point conversion attempt.

Smith feels a lot better about this team and believes it will surpass the bleak projections.

“Really, can we protect?” said Smith, when asked if the team answered his questions. “Can we run the football on a defense that was supposed to be the Steel Curtain and the ‘85 Bears front? That’s what I wanted to see. The challenge was that we come up and manhandle that front. Which is one of the better fronts.”

The Falcons are set to play at the Los Angeles Rams at 4:05 p.m. Sept. 18.

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 NFL schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18 at Los Angeles Rams, 4:05 p.m.

Sept. 25 at Seattle, 4:25 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m.

Oct. 9 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

Oct. 16 vs. San Francisco, 1 p.m.

Oct. 23 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Oct. 30 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m.

Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.


Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD