5 things we learned from the Falcons win over the Saints

Running back Devonta Freeman breaks away from Saints defenders for a 75-yard touchdown run to put the Falcons ahead 14-3 during the first quarter in an NFL football game on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, at the Georgia Dome. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Running back Devonta Freeman breaks away from Saints defenders for a 75-yard touchdown run to put the Falcons ahead 14-3 during the first quarter in an NFL football game on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, at the Georgia Dome. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Chats of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” rang from all corners of the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s dissection of the New Orleans’ defense was masterful and complete in a 38-32 victory before a festive crowd of 70,835. The victory helped the Falcons earn the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs and solidified Ryan’s bid to become the franchise’s first most valuable player winner.

“Yeah, I heard,” Ryan said of the chants. “That was nice.”

Ryan, who also set a franchise mark for most yards passing in a season with 4,962 yards, directed touchdown drives on the team’s first five possessions as five different players scored. Shaky defensive play allowed the Saints to make the game close in the final minutes.

Ryan set the previous mark of 4,719 yards in 2012.

The Falcons, who entered the game as the NFC South champs, improved to 11-5. The Saints, for the third consecutive season, finish at 7-9.

“Essentially it was like a playoff win today, getting us to the second round,” Ryan said.

Ryan completed 27 of 36 passes for 331 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Falcons.

“I just felt like they were in a groove,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I felt like Matt did particularly well today. He created some and moved in the pocket and just threw some balls that were right on point.”

The Falcons must now await the highest seed to get through the wild-card round to play in the divisional round.

Here are the five things we learned from the victory:

1. Starting strong. For the sixth consecutive game, the Falcons scored a touchdown on their opening drive.

After the defense held the Saints and forced a punt, the offense raced 68 yards in just four plays.

Ryan completed a pass to running back Devonta Freeman, who reversed field and picked up 13 yards.

Ryan tossed a pass to wide receiver Justin Hardy for 13 yards and then dropped a short pass over the middle to Freeman, who broke it outside for a 35-yard gain.

On the next play, Ryan found running back Tevin Coleman in the flat wide open and he walked in untouched for a 7-yard touchdown.

The tone was set as the Falcons went on to score touchdown on all five of their first-half possession as they built a 35-13 halftime lead.

In addition to Coleman, Freeman scored on a 75-yard run, wide receiver Julio Jones had a yard touchdown catch, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had a 10-yard touchdown grab and Hardy scored on a 7-yard pass.

2. Freeman's big run. On the Falcons' second possession, Freeman broke open off the right side of the line, bounced outside to the right and out-raced cornerback Sterling Moore to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown run.

Sanu, who was in the backfield inside of the tight end and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, picked up the key block. Saints safety Roman Harper was in the box to stop the run, but Sanu punished him and allowed Freeman to scoot outside and break Moore’s containment.

It was the fifth time this season that Freeman and Coleman combined for 200-plus yards in a game and third game in a row. They had 223 yards against the Panthers and 221 against the 49ers in the two previous games.

They combined for 20 rushes for 140 yards and eight catches for 96 yards against the Saints.

3. Injury report. The Falcons avoided a serious hit to their Super Bowl aspirations when a shoulder injury suffered by Pro Bowl pass rusher Vic Beasley wasn't serious enough to keep him out of the game.

“He was ready to go battle again,” Quinn said.

Beasley sustained a left shoulder injury during the second Saints drive of the first quarter and headed to the locker room after being examined by the team physician. Beasley returned to the Falcons’ sideline early in the second quarter and played during their next defensive series.

Beasley entered the final week of the regular season leading the league with 14.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.

Beasley, who returned with a shoulder harness, registered a sack.

“Football is a tough game,” Beasley said. “I’ll get a MRI tomorrow and we’ll go from there. I came back (with a harness) to protect that labrum.”

Safety Keanu Neal left the game in the fourth quarter and was being checked for a concussion after putting a big hit on Saints wide receiver Willie Snead.

Cornerback Robert Alford sustained a knee injury in the fourth quarter.

Both said they are fine and will be ready for the playoff game.

4. Julio Jones watch. Jones, who has been battling a toe injury, had a strong showing against the Saints. He caught seven passes for 96 yards and a yard touchdown pass on a fade route in the second quarter.

Jones was limited in last week’s win over the Carolina. He repeatedly pulled himself out of the lineup.

Jones played most of the game against the Saints and appeared closer to 100 percent health.

5. Secondary meets the challenge. This was billed as a pre-playoff challenge for the Falcons' revamped secondary.

Alford and Jalen Collins, who had an interception, did a great job in coverage against the Saints dangerous trio of receivers in rookie Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks and Snead, who entered the game with 2,952 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Thomas added a 14-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

“He’s somebody who continues to grow the more that he’s playing,” Quinn said of Collins. “He’s somebody who has totally come through for us. The guy is loaded with grit.”