Ryan had 19 complete passes and 18 incompletions. One of his two interceptions came at the end of the first half after he took a sack when he absolutely couldn’t, then tried a Hail Mary. The other pick ended a desperate comeback attempt with five minutes left.
Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) intercepts a pass that was intended for Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18), next to free safety Marcus Williams (43) in the second half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
“My hat’s off to them,” Ryan said. “I thought they played really well today. We have to find a way to be better when we see them in a couple of weeks.”
Brees (ribs) won’t be back for that Dec. 6 game. The Falcons spent much of the week preparing to face either Winston or Hill as his replacement. When Brees was out last season, Saints coach Sean Payton played Teddy Bridgewater ahead of Hill. When Brees left last week’s game, Payton turned to Winston.
Hill started and finished against the Falcons. He had 18 passing attempts over 46 previous games. Against the Falcons he passed for 233 yards on 23 attempts. His best work passing came after the Falcons started deploying extra defenders to account for his runs.
The Falcons said they weren’t surprised by what Hill can do.
“We had a good plan,” cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “I think we had a good week of practice as well. I think they just came out and executed better. . . He’s an NFL quarterback. He’s very talented.
“He made the plays that he’s supposed to make today, and we didn’t. It’s simple as that.”
Payton’s early plan for Hill was straightforward: high-percentage throws mixed in with some designed runs. At halftime Hill was 9 of 13 for 127 yards. The Falcons sacked him twice and limited him to six yards on two carries. They had Hill in check.
Hill got lucky the one time he let it fly. His pass for Emmanuel Sanders was underthrown by several yards. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones might have caught it if he’d looked up. But Jones overran the ball and Sanders caught it about 15 yards from the end zone and went to the turf.
Sanders got up and Dennard hit him hard to force a fumble. Teammate Keanu Neal scooped it up. But a replay review determined that Neal’s hand brushed Sanders as he went to the ground after the catch. The Saints kept the ball, and Alvin Kamara scored a touchdown four plays later.
That was the only touchdown in the first half. The Saints punted twice. Kicker Will Lutz missed a 53-yard field goal try in the second quarter. The Falcons had plenty of chances to take control before Hill discovered his rhythm.
Instead, their offense kept going backward. When the Falcons did manage to overcome the negative plays, they stalled once in scoring range.
The Falcons gave up a sack on four of five possessions in the first half. Those drives ended punt, field goal, field goal and the interception on Ryan’s heave. Eventually, Ryan started to look shaky in the pocket as pass rushers surrounded him. When Ryan did have time, he often didn’t pass before the pocket collapsed.
“We don’t just want to blame the offensive line all the way,” Morris said. “A lot of those (sacks) are a combination of coverage and rush.”
The Saints opened the second half with Hill’s two-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal. The Falcons still were only down 17-9 with more than half the third quarter to play. They needed more from their offense.
Julio Jones (hamstring) had been in and out of the game, but Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage were healthy. In the first half they’d made plays against the Saints’ secondary, which was without top cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Better pass protection and some creativity with the play calls was in order.
New Orleans cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) in the second half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)
What the Falcons got was Ryan handing off twice to Todd Gurley. The first went for three yards and the second for no gain. The Falcons punted again. The Saints started at their 47-yard line. They had a first-and-20 after a penalty and still ended up with a first down, then Hill scored the 10-yard TD run.
Hill gave them the Falcons one more opening when he lost a fumble at the end of a 20-yard run with eight minutes to play. On third down, Ryan took his eighth sack. On fourth-and-13 Ryan passed for 22 yards to Jones, who’d re-entered the game.
Jones went to the sideline again after that play. Three snaps later Ryan threw his second pick on a pass intended for Ridley. The Falcons were finished.
The Saints are on track for their fourth straight NFC South title. The Falcons dropped into last place and will finish with a losing record for a third consecutive year.
“Guys had great preparation,” Morris said. “I thought it was one of our best (weeks). But that doesn’t always dictate what happens on Sunday.”
The Saints did the dictating after halftime as the Falcons’ offense faded away.