The Saints invited the Falcons into the shootout.
Almost 1,000 yards and after the ninth lead change, the Saints prevailed 43-37 in overtime over the Falcons on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Quarterback Drew Brees scored on a 1-yard run on the 15th play of overtime to help the Saints improve to 2-1. The Falcons dropped to 1-2 on the season.
“This is really tough,” Falcons center Alex Mack said. “This is a hard way to lose in overtime. We put a lot into the game in our (preparation) time, but it’s early in the season and we are going to see these guys again.”
The Falcons’ injury-riddled defense was just too porous --with a double-digit missed tackles count -- and couldn’t stop the Saints, who amassed 534 yards of offense. The Falcons had 407 yards.
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“That just can’t happen at the end,” defensive end Brooks Reed said. “We pride ourselves in finishing games. We just have to be better.”
The offense failed when the team needed it the most. The Saints keep rallying and tied the game 37-37 with 1:15 to play. The Falcons couldn’t drive down and get into field goal range for the win and were forced to punt.
“We had chances offensively to finish the ball game today and we didn’t do that, so that part is disappointing,” quarterback Matt Ryan said.
The Falcons’ defensive unit may be facing another significant loss as free safety Ricardo Allen left the game with a calf injury and did not return.
The Falcons and the Saints have been used to playing close games. Only three times since 2010 have these games been decided by more than 10 points.
The Falcons wasted stellar performances from Ryan and Calvin Ridley. Ryan completed 26 of 35 passes for 374 yards and five touchdowns. Ridley caught five passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
Ryan’s five touchdowns tied a team record with Wade Wilson, who passed for five touchdowns in a 35-7 win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 13, 1992.
Here are five things we learned from the NFC South contest.
1. The Ridley show: Ridley torched the Saints secondary, but got himself scolded by wide receiver Julio Jones.
On his 75-yard touchdown, Ridley slowed down to tease the Saints defenders, but nearly got caught from behind. He put a move on Saints cornerback P.J. Williams and then raced past him. Ryan’s pass was on the mark.
Jones was seen on the sidelines telling Ridley to get to the end zone first. He was animated in his discussion with the rookie, who was the 26th overall player taken in the draft.
Both Jones and Ridley played at Alabama.
“It was clear from the start the game their plan was to use two guys to account for Julio and use a safety from the opposite side to come down to account for where Mohamed (Sanu) was,” Ryan said. “That leaves Ridley singled up in one-on-one coverage. I thought (offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) did a great job taking advantage of that.”
2. No pass rush: With defensive end Takk McKinley out with a groin injury, Brees operated mostly from a pristine passing pocket. Vic Beasley, who needs to use his hands better and come up with a counter move, got his first sack of the season in the third quarter. Brian Poole got a hit on Brees, but was called for unnecessary roughness.
The Falcons had one sack and two quarterback hits, one by Beasley and one by Grady Jarrett.
Brees became the NFL’s all-time completion leader in the game. He entered the game needing 14 completions to break Brett Favre’s record of 6,300. He connected with wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 17-yards gain for the record in the second quarter.
Brees, 39, broke the record in his 18th NFL season. Favre played 20 NFL seasons and shattered the completions record previously held by Dan Marino (4,967).
It must be noted that Brees and Favre played in the more passer friendly NFL era where rule changes were made to favor offense, lessen contact on receivers and allowed quarterbacks to throw the ball away when running away from defenders out of the pocket.
Beasley, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016, had just one sack in his previous 12 games, counting the playoffs.
3. Blocked punt costly: With the Falcons up 21-16 in the third quarter, the Saints got a blocked punt by Alex Okafor. Linebacker Craig Robertson returned the ball 12 yards to set up the Saints offense in scoring position at the Falcons’ 16.
Okafor was on the right side of the Falcons formation and got around linebacker Foye Oluokun to block the punt.
“He was a little wider,” Oluokun said. “I have to do a better job go to kick him out.”
Four plays later, Brees connected with wide receiver Cam Meredith for an 11-yard touchdown. Beasley had trouble splitting a double-team block from tackle Ryan Ramczyck and guard Larry Warford to get to Brees on the touchdown play. The score put the Saints backup up 23-21 with 6:07 left in the third quarter.
4. Rushing attack: Where did the Falcons rushing attack go?
The Saints dedicated eight and sometimes nine players to stop the run.
The Falcons had to stay patient, but eventually got tired of the jumbled box and started launching deep passes to Ridley.
Tevin Coleman, who was coming off his second 100-yard game, was held in check. He rushed 15 times for 33 yards. Ito Smith had one carry for minus-6 yards.
“We didn’t get into a rhythm like we did last week,” Falcons right guard Brandon Fusco said.
5. Zone-read mix up: After the Falcons took a 29-23 lead, the Saints caught the defense off guard on third-and-2 from their 45. They slipped backup quarterback Taysom Hill into the game.
He faked a handoff and then ripped off a 35-yard gain down to the Falcons’ 20. Poole’s horse-collar tackle penalty moved the ball to the 10.
Four plays later, Brees tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Zach Line. Lutz’ extra point put the Saints up 30-29 with 9:59 to play.