Falcons stage sweetest last-gasp victory yet against Saints

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan steps out of a potential sack and delivers against the Saints Sunday. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Caption
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan steps out of a potential sack and delivers against the Saints Sunday. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

NEW ORLEANS – This beautifully decrepit city is where Terry Fontenot called home for most of his adult life. Went to college here. Had his three kids here. Here is where he climbed the professional ladder for close to two decades, going from an intern in the New Orleans Saints marketing department to an assistant General Manager primed for one more big promotion.

That came in January, when the Falcons reached across the divide of one of the NFL’s great rivalries to make Fontenot their new GM.

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On his first time back with his new team this weekend, the general manager stayed as unobtrusive as possible. While his family remained back in Atlanta, he had a quiet dinner out at a favored spot, R’evolution, the night before the game. Went for a run in the Warehouse District the morning of. And when he reported to his old haunt, the Caesars Superdome, rather than mingle with old friends on the field, Fontenot went straight upstairs to the seclusion of a private box.

“I wanted it to be a business trip, wanted it to be about the team. And this team is special, given who these guys are,” Fontenot said.

As for his current football team, that’s another case altogether. The Falcons came in here Sunday and made quite an obnoxious pain of themselves. They did it again, putting up their third last-second victory of the season, beating the Saints, their first opponent of any real quality, 27-25. Sure, the Falcons had to fritter away an 18-point lead in the last 10 minutes in order to inject such thrill into the day. But they won in the end – Matt Ryan taking the team 64 yards in the final minute and Younghoe Koo nailing the winning 29-yard field goal. And winning such games is so much better than losing them.

“We just like to give our fans a heart attack here and there, just to keep them on their toes,” said Cordarrelle Patterson, whose long reception set up the winning kick.

As identities go, adopting one of a team that can thrive in the final minute is a very good idea. For not doing so is grounds for dismissal (see Dan Quinn).

Ryan broke it down simply: “You are what you repeatedly do. When you find ways to get the job done, you’re a team that finds a way to get the job done.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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Quarterback Matt Ryan got the Falcons in position to kick a field goal to beat the Saints.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons’ four wins have been by an average of just 3.5 points. But they also have four losses, by an average of nearly 15 points a game. So there is plenty still to clean up.

But for the moment at hand, who could appreciate it more than Fontenot, watching his new team display such competitive elasticity in beating his old team?

No one has ever spoken more glowingly of a 4-4 outfit.

“It’s all about those players,” Fontenot said. “I feel like I’ve known those guys my whole life even though I’ve been here less than a year. Just the way they play and compete, starting with the leaders – those guys are special.

“When you land and you’re on the bus and driving by a lot of things you know – I’d been here a long time – to come in and have a good team win like that, is huge,” he added.

There is plenty broken in Fontenot’s old town. The residential skyline is a panorama of blue tarps covering roofs still ravaged by a September’s Hurricane Ida. There are stoplights along busy Canal Street and on Poydras in front of the Saints’ home dome that still don’t work right, creating an every-man-and-woman-for-themselves kind of traffic pattern.

Then there’s the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson. He’s always broken.

Used to be they could count on a jolly good time at the expense of the Falcons, the Saints having won the last three and six of the last eight meetings coming into this one. Sunday, they didn’t even have that to hold onto.

The Falcons had one insurmountable advantage this day – a quarterback you could trust. Not even the big brain of New Orleans coach Sean Payton could turn Trevor Siemian into a preferable option over Ryan.

It even looked easy in the Big Easy for a bit. The Falcons compiled two of their four longest touchdowns drives of the season – 92 and 81 yards – on consecutive drives. All the while Ryan, who scrambled in from a yard out for the second touchdown, was noticeably nimble, seeming to channel his inner Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s light-footed quarterback. Responding to that off-handed observation, Ryan said with a laugh, “I think Stetson Bennett has a little of me in him. I’ve been running in touchdowns for a long time. I feel like I’ve always moved well enough.”

When the Falcons converted a Steven Means fumble recovery into another score, they found themselves flush, leading 24-6 with 10:39 to play. But nothing comes nice and easy for the Falcons.

The Saints would awaken, the Falcons defense would come down with some serious yellow flag fever, and 19 points and nine minutes later New Orleans was up 25-24. Atlanta’s week of basking in the Braves’ victory appeared headed for an ignominious crash within the giant concrete mushroom of its most bitter rival.

But let the glow continue another week. The Saints ultimately erred in allowing Ryan the last word. His 41st career game-winning drive amounted to a single play, really: A 64-yard rainbow throw to Patterson, enjoying a single-covered sprint up one sideline that allowed the Falcons to just kill clock before bringing on Mr. Sure Thing, Koo, for a 29-yard chip shot.

“When you put the ball in Matt Ryan’s hand with the game on the line, my money’s on Matt,” said Falcons coach Arthur Smith after winning his first time in New Orleans. Ryan finished 23-of-30 for 343 yards, two touchdowns and a near-perfect rating.

“He’s not nervous, he’s been doing this his whole career, bringing teams back, it’s what he does,” Patterson said.

This was the Falcons’ first win this season over a team currently possessing a winning record (the Saints are now 5-3). A nice little win for a franchise on the mend. Bigger than that, it was a win that one general manager never will forget.

“You’re right, man, I won’t,” Fontenot said.

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