The playoffs begin now for the Falcons.
After a slovenly performance by the offense, the Falcons (9-6) were defeated by the Saints 23-13 before 73,188 rabid fans on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
With a chance to earn a playoff berth and stay in the race for the NFC South title, the offense, which carried the Falcons to the Super Bowl and Matt Ryan to the MVP last season, imploded.
“We are disappointed with our performance today,” Ryan said. “We didn’t play well enough. We had some opportunities on the offensive side of the ball. Put ourselves behind the chains with too many penalties, turnovers and missed opportunities.”
Ryan and his crew had six first-half penalties, three failed red-zone trips, two of them inside the 5-yard line, and a key fumble by running back Devonta Freeman at the Saints’ 2-yard line early in the third quarter.
The Saints (11-4) leaned on running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram who nearly doubled the output of the Falcons' running back duo of Freeman and Tevin Coleman — 156 total yards from scrimmage to 108.
The Falcons didn’t score a touchdown until Ryan connected with Coleman for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 2:40 left in the game.
“You just have to man up,” Freeman said. “I know I fumbled. I shouldn’t have fumbled. I know that. I know I can do better with holding the ball.”
Freeman also had two costly penalties.
“I don’t really want to speak on it,” Freeman said. “They are the refs. I play with so many emotions and they’ve got to make their decisions and I’ve got to do the right things. Obviously, I need to do a better job.”
The Falcons can clinch the NFC's final playoff berth with a win over Carolina in the regular-season finale on Sunday. The game was moved to a 4:25 p.m. by the NFL.
Carolina can still win the division with a victory combined with a Saints loss to Tampa Bay in a season finale. New Orleans has the tiebreaker with Carolina by virtue of sweeping the season series.
A defeat to the Panthers would drop the Falcons to 9-7 and could leave them out of the playoffs if Seattle beats Arizona. It’s likely they would face either the Saints or the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs.
If the Falcons finish tied with Seattle, the Falcons have the head-to-head tiebreaker on the strength of their 34-31 victory on Nov. 20.
Seattle hosts Arizona in their regular-season finale.
“We just have to have a short term memory,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “We have to understand that we can see them if we win next week, there’s a possibility of playing them again in the playoffs.”
The Saints, who were defeated by the Falcons 20-17 on Dec. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, methodically pulled away for the victory.
Ingram scored on a 26-yard touchdown run to put them up 20-3 with 2:52 left in the third quarter.
The Saints put their stamp on this game early as they broke open a tight game just before halftime, intercepting a pass with less than a minute to go and turning that into a 54-yard touchdown pass and 13-0 lead.
The offense couldn’t get into a rhythm as the penalties mounted.
Then momentum shifted quickly in the third quarter.
On the Saints first possession of the second half, linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a Brees’ pass and returned it 41 yards to the Saints’ 2 yard line.
Two plays later, Freeman’s fumble was recovered by Manti Te’o. And just like that the momentum shift died.
Later in the fourth quarter, Freeman was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 1 after an apparent touchdown catch by Julio Jones was ruled to be short of the end zone.
Jones caught a pass for 9 yards on the first play of the game against the Saints to move pass Terance Mathis into second place on the franchise’s all-time time receptions list.
Falcons left guard Andy Levitre, who’s fighting back from a triceps injury, was declared inactive. Ben Garland started in his place. Coach Dan Quinn and offensive line coach Chris Morgan must have decided that Levitre couldn’t play with a weaken left arm.
Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, a key player in the rushing attack, suffered a knee injury in the first half and did not return.
With Toilolo out, the Falcons played the rest of the game with one tight end, Austin Hooper, because Eric Saubert was inactive.
“What’s next for us?,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We have to assess, get right and get ready. We get to go back home and play at home for all that is in front of us. We intend on doing that.”