Saints withstand furious late Falcons rally attempt

It was a night to give “Thanks.”

And the Falcons are certainly thankful that they are one game closer to the end of this disastrous season. Three-quarters down. Four more games to go.

Playing without six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons’ offense was stymied in a 26-18 Saints victory Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Saints backup quarterback Taysom Hill led the charge, while the Falcons continued to confound with mistakes, miscues, interceptions, fumbles and missed blocks.

The Falcons’ Foye Oluokun and Kemal Ishmael recovered two late onside kicks to give their team a chance to tie the score with 1:56 left, but the offensive line couldn’t keep the Saints off quarterback Matt Ryan.

The Falcons allowed a sack on the first play of the game and the last play was a sack with 38 seconds left on a fourth-and-8. There were seven other sacks in between.

There would be no Ryan-led miracle comeback on this Thanksgiving holiday.

The Saints improved to 10-2 and clinched the NFC South. The last-place Falcons dropped to 3-9 and were eliminated from the playoffs.

“It’s definitely been maddening to not have the performances that we would like,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “But at the end of it, we recognize where we are at.”

The Falcons joined the Bengals and Lions as the only teams eliminated from the playoffs.

“We have a four-game block coming up,” Quinn said. “Coming off the bye we knew we had four games that were going to finish on tonight. So, we had a bunch of division games to go. With the players, we’ll approach it in the same way, another four-game block. We definitely have some areas where we can improve on and that’s certainly where our focus will be.”

Hill deflected a punt, caught a touchdown pass and ran for another score for the Saints. Kicker Wil Lutz, who played at Georgia State, made all four of his field goal attempts, while Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo missed a field goal attempt and an extra point attempt.

Because of poor blocking, Ryan was under duress. He tossed two interceptions and fumbled while trying to scramble in the fourth quarter.

The Saints recorded nine sacks and 13 quarterback hits as the Falcons’ offense never got into a groove until it scored a late touchdown.

“That’s our job to protect Matt and we didn’t do that tonight,” guard Jamon Brown said.

Ryan tried to defend his line.

“We had to drop back and pass at the end of the game, when you do that there is really no threat of run, it’s tough,” Ryan said. “Tough sledding especially when we are going against a good defense and one of the better pass rushers in the league in Cam Jordan. It was difficult, but I’m proud of the way the guys fought.”

Jordan, who was sackless when the Falcons stunned the Saints 26-9 on Nov. 10 in New Orleans, finished with four sacks and four quarterback hits.

Christian Blake started for Jones and caught six passes for 57 yards.  Calvin Ridley led the Falcons in receiving with eight catches for 91 yards.

“We were just trying to get the ball out a little bit quicker,” Ridley said. “Their defense is pretty good. We tried to get the ball out as quick as we could and make plays after the catch.”

Behind the strong play of Hill and the kicking woes of Koo, the Saints held a 17-9 halftime lead.

The Falcons got off to a horrible start. They were sacked on the first play of the game and after two more futile downs they had their first punt deflected. Hill attacked Jermaine Grace’s inside shoulder, got past him and knocked the punt with his raised left arm.

The Saints were in business at the Falcons’ 30-yard line. Four plays later, Hill caught a shovel pass from Drew Brees and scored on a 3-yard touchdown.

After an exchange of punts, the Falcons put together a promising drive. They moved from their 25 to the Saints’ 2. On fourth-and-1, Ryan’s pass for Blake was incomplete.

The Falcons’ defense forced a three-and-out, and the offense answered with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jaeden Graham. Koo missed the extra point attempt, and the Falcons trailed 7-6.

The Saints answered with a 22-yard field goal by Lutz to make the score 10-6.

On the Falcons’ ensuing possession, Koo missed a 42-yard attempt.

New Orleans tight end Jared Cook broke loose for a 29-yard gain to help the Saints zip down to the Falcons’ 30-yard line. As the Falcons were scrambling to line up correctly, Hill took a direct snap and went through the right side of the Falcons defense for the score.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara went in motion, and Falcons linebacker Deion Jones went with him. Oluokun, who was at linebacker, was yelling for safety Ricardo Allen to come down and replace Jones, but he stayed back.

Oluokun got blocked, opening a gaping hole for Hill to run through.

“Miscommunication,” Oluokun said. “That’s all I want to say.”

The Falcons perplexed TV analyst Rodney Harrison. “I don’t know what’s so difficult,” Harrison said on the NBC telecast. “It’s a base cover-3 defense.”

The Hill touchdown put the Saints up 17-6.

The Falcons got back into field-goal range, and Koo made a 42-yarder for the halftime margin.

The Saints added a 47-yard field goal by Lutz in the third quarter.

The Falcons scored on a 13-yard touchdown pass to Russell Gage with 3:26 left to make the score 26-15. The Falcons went for a two-point conversion and were unsuccessful.

After Oluokun recovered the first onside kick, the Falcons made it a one-score game with a 43-yard field goal.

Ishmael got the second onsides kick, but the Saints sacked Ryan four times on the last drive to thwart any hopes of a comeback.

“We’ve got to do better protecting him as an offense,” Ridley said.