Reality check: The Falcons still aren’t very good

Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) sacks Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the first half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) sacks Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the first half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)

The Morris magic — if beating three so-so teams over four games qualifies — went missing Sunday. The Falcons, the only team in the Superdome with a healthy No. 1 quarterback, performed as if their mission was to render Matt Ryan unhealthy. A game that saw the visitors leading at the first half’s two-minute warning turned into, more than a just a loss, an abject thumping.

The Saints, who trailed 9-3, won 24-9. An offense with Ryan, Todd Gurley, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst and, on occasion, Julio Jones, didn’t manage a touchdown. It needed three garbage-time completions to break 200 total yards. Ryan was sacked eight times. He threw two interceptions. His passer rating was 48.5, his lowest since a four-interception game against Arizona on Oct. 27, 2013, and the fourth-worst of his distinguished career.

Said Raheem Morris, whose record as interim coach slipped to 3-2: “We talk about football being about the good, the bad and the ugly. There was more bad than good, and they definitely dominated the ugly.”

The weird part wasn’t that the Saints won. They’re 8-2 for a reason. The weird part was that, during the week and for long moments in the first half, this — kind of, sort of — seemed a winnable game. The Saints were without Drew Brees. Instead of Jameis Winston, Saints coach Sean Payton tabbed Taysom Hill, known for doing the sort of things quarterbacks can’t and don’t do, as his starting quarterback. It was Hill’s first NFL start, which showed early. It didn’t show enough that it made a difference.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is sacked by Saints defensive ends Cameron Jordan (94) and Marcus Davenport, pushing the Flacons out of field goal range, in the first half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)

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The game changed on the Saints’ third takedown of Ryan. Hill had engineered a nice drive to put his team ahead 10-9 with 1:46 left in the first half. Aided by two penalties for defensive holding, they moved past midfield. With 33 seconds remaining, they faced third-and-2 at the New Orleans 39. An incompletion would have left Younghoe Koo, who’d already made two field goals of 50-plus yards, a 56-yard try to retake the lead.

Instead Ryan was sacked by Cameron Jordan, who for once hadn’t bamboozled his assigned blocker. Ryan simply held the ball way ... too ... long. The lost yardage meant Koo never got his chance. Ryan’s heave as time expired was intercepted.

The second half was a pummeling. The Falcons were outgained 114 yards to minus-6 in the third quarter. They went 22 minutes after halftime without a first down. Warming to his task, Hill completed enough passes to make the Falcons stop stacking the line, whereupon he ran for two touchdowns. The Falcons rushed for only 52 yards, the Saints for 168.

“We had him under control in the first half,” Morris said of Hill, but thereafter the Falcons were overwhelmed. Again, the outcome wasn’t a shock — many better Falcons teams than this have lost in the big building off Poydras Street — but it was a disappointment. They’d looked better under Morris. Then again, they couldn’t have looked worse than the 0-5 that finally got Dan Quinn fired.

Said Ryan: “It’s one of those days.”

Said Morris: “They absolutely dominated us on third down … They absolutely covered our wideouts.”

That last bit was intriguing. The Saints were minus No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore and still locked down the Falcons. Yet again, Jones tweaked his hamstring and missed much of the game. He did convert on fourth-and-13 inside the final seven minutes, though you wonder if it was worth it. Jones limped off, not to return, after the catch. Ryan was intercepted three plays later.

Ryan: “They were rushing different packages. They were stressing our pass protection. They did a good job covering at the back end.”

In sum, the Saints played a brand of defense for which the Falcons, their many famous names notwithstanding, had no answer. And this, remember, was with the Falcons coming off a bye week.

“The guys had great preparation,” Morris said. “That doesn’t always dictate how you play.”

Guess not. The result changed little about this wretched season, though it lengthened the odds on Morris winning enough games to turn his interim posting into a permanent assignment. The Falcons are 3-7. They’d have to win out — good luck there — to finish above .500, something this franchise hasn’t managed since 2016. They’ll see the Saints again in two weeks. They’ll see Tampa Bay twice, Kansas City once.

After beating the Broncos two weeks again, Morris declared that “the Dirty Birds are back.” Not every opponent, alas, can be Denver. What happened Sunday wasn’t earth-shattering stuff. A good team, even without its Hall of Fame quarterback, beat a bad one. For a few games, the Falcons under Morris dropped a few hints that maybe that they’d reinvented themselves. After further review, they haven’t.