The streaking New Orleans Saints, from the outset, dominated the Falcons on their way to a 31-17 victory before a festive Thanksgiving Day crowd of 73,017 on Thursday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Falcons hurt themselves by losing fumbles three times inside the Saints’ 20-yard line and with a costly late interception. Quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley had key fumbles that stymied any effort to keep up with the high-flying Saints.
“When you have one, it feels like a lot,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “So, when you have three down there, I thought that was the real story of the game.”
The Falcons were dejected.
“It’s rough right now for us,” Jones said. “You don’t want guys to quit. This is the time that you get see what guys are really like.”
With the victory, the Saints improved to 10-1 and eliminated the Falcons from the NFC South division title race. The Falcons dropped to 4-7 and trail the Saints by six games with five to play.
“We just have to keep battling,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “We can’t turn on each other. We are a team. We win as a team. We lose as a team.”
The Saints, who also beat the Falcons 43-27 in overtime Sept. 23, swept the season series for the first time since 2013.
The Falcons’ hopes for making the playoffs also were greatly diminished with the defeat. They’ll need to win all of the games and get some help from the teams ahead of them.
Ryan completed 35 of 47 passes for 377 yards, two touchdowns and one interceptions. Jones had 11 receptions for 147 yards.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees tossed four touchdown passes as the Saints leaned on their rushing attack. Running back Mark Ingram rushed 14 times for 80 yards, while Alvin Kamara added 11 carries and 52 yards.
Here are five things we learned from the loss:
1. Fast start: The Falcons won the coin toss and elected to kick the ball to the NFL’s top scoring offense.
That was mistake No. 1 of many to come.
The Saints entered the game averaging 37.8 points per game. The Falcons seemingly would have wanted to play keep-away from the Saints’ offense and try to get the lead first.
The Saints took the first possession and promptly marched down the field and scored when Brees tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tommylee Lewis.
The touchdown capped a crisp seven-play, 75-yard drive.
The Falcons, who were averaging 26.3 points per game, came back and marched down the field. On third-and-2 from the Saints’ 3-yard line, Saints safety Marcus Williams burst through the line and smacked the ball off of Ryan, who was attempting to pass. Williams recovered the fumble.
On the Saints’ next possession, free safety Damontae Kazee intercepted a Brees pass that was intended for wide receiver Keith Kirkwood, and he appeared to return it for a touchdown. Cornerback Desmond Trufant put a nice block on Brees, too.
After reviewing the replay, Kazee was ruled down at the 39-yard line. It was Brees’ second interception of the season.
2. No field goals needed. The Falcons promptly drove the ball back down inside the Saints’ red zone, but stalled again.
On second-and-6 from the Saints’ 7, Ryan was sacked. His third-down pass to Jones was incomplete.
Matt Bryant made a 32-yard field to make the score 7-3.
"So, field goals against them isn't going to cut it the way they're putting points up," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Monday.
That was a prophetic statement.
The Saints then ripped off 17 consecutive points, adding a 22-yard field by former Georgia State kicker Wil Lutz and a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Carr to take a 17-3 lead at halftime.
They added a 25-yard touchdown pass from Brees to tight end Dan Arnold in the third quarter.
On the touchdown pass to Carr, Falcons safety Sharrod Neasman bit on a the play-action fake and let Carr run free. He was wide open.
Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel was livid with Neasman on the sideline after that play.
Carr’s score capped a 7-play, 58 yard touchdown drive that took 4:12 off the clock.
Neasman was also in coverage on Arnold’s touchdown.
3. Fourth-down gambles. The Falcons were on the move right before the half. Ryan converted a fourth-and-6 from his 49 on a scramble.
Four plays later from the Saints’ 32, Jones caught the ball and was on the move. He’d reached the 19-yard line when he was crushed by Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore and linebacker Alex Anzalone and fumbled.
The Saints recovered to end the scoring threat
The Falcons received the ball to start the second half and went for it fourth-and-2 from their 48. Ryan’s pass for Ridley was incomplete.
The defense got a stop after the Saints tried to draw them offside on fourth down.
After going down 24-3, the Falcons converted two fourth-down plays and a third-and-13.
Ryan’s pass to Ridley on fourth-and-2 capped a 13-play, 79-yard drive to make the score 24-10 with 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
After an interception by Ryan, the Saints added another touchdown, Brees’ fourth of the game. He tossed a 5-yard pass to Kirkwood.
The Falcons added a garbage-time touchdown on a Ryan to Coleman 4-yard pass with 1:51 left.
4. Red-zone woes: The Falcons made it inside the Saints’ red zone three times in the first half and had two turnovers and a field goal to show for it.
The Falcons scored a touchdown on their only trip inside the Saints’ 20-yard line in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, with the Falcons trying to rally, Ridley fumbled on the 1-yard line after a nice reception and run.
Lattimore caused the fumble, and cornerback Eli Apple recovered.
“We had the opportunity to come away with a lot more points than we did tonight,” Ryan said. “When you give them the football in the low red (zone), it’s tough to overcome.”
5. Pounding the Falcons. The Saints were determined to run the ball on the Falcons. The rushed 17 times for 101 yards in the first half.
The Falcons rushed eight times for 12 yards. The longest run by the Falcons was a 7-yard scramble by Ryan on a fourth-and-5 right before the half.
The Saints’ defense also won the line of scrimmage battle, as they had six quarterback sacks and 13 quarterback hits.