Falcons rise up on Saints before collapsing again

Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota leaves the field after losing the season-opening game against the Saints on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota leaves the field after losing the season-opening game against the Saints on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

The Falcons were about to bury the Saints. They had a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter. Now quarterback Marcus Mariota was running free for a first down near the end zone. Then he fumbled the ball away.

Oh, no.

The Falcons forced a punt and added another field goal. They led by 16 points early in the fourth quarter. The Saints responded with three long passes by Jameis Winston, then a short one for a touchdown and another one for a two-point conversion. The margin was eight points with 11-plus minutes left.


The Falcons made it to midfield, then punted. Winston went to work again. He completed passes for 20 yards, 21, 20 again and 14 to set up first-and-goal. Winston zipped a TD pass to Michael Thomas. The two-point try failed this time, but the Falcons had the most tenuous two-point lead you’ll ever see.

The Falcons survived a near-calamity when Mariota fumbled the snap on third-and-short and recovered it. They benefited from some boneheaded penalties by the Saints. It didn’t matter. Wil Lutz kicked a field goal to put the Saints ahead, and New Orleans blocked a long field-goal try at the end.

The margin doesn’t look so bad for the Falcons. The Saints, favored by 5 ½ points, won 27-26. It’s the way the Falcons lost that looks bad.

It was another collapse for a team that has been defined by them in recent years. Most of them happened with coaches and players who are no longer here. But here were new players and coaches doing the same thing again at home, against their most hated rival.

When addressing his team after the defeat, coach Arthur Smith made villains out of the critics he imagined would be making that connection.

“I said, ‘Hold your heads up high,’” Smith said. “The same ‘peripheral opponents’ that thought we wouldn’t get a yard, get a point, the same ones will be writing old narratives. That’s not us.”

I thought the Falcons would do much better than a yard and a point. I expected them to be competitive in a loss. That’s how it turned out but they dominated the Saints for most of three quarters. The Saints led 7-3 after the first. They were down 26-10 with 12:41 left in the fourth. The margin would have been larger if not for Mariota’s fumble.

Mariota made hay with his legs all day, but that wasn’t the time to lower his shoulder. He had the yardage he needed for a first down. Slide and it’s first-and-goal. Score a TD from there and the Saints were finished. The Falcons still had chances after that mistake.

After the Saints cut the margin to 26-24, the Falcons had a third-and-1 a few yards past midfield. Mariota fumbled the exchange with center Drew Dalman, scooped up the ball and was stopped for no gain. There was about a minute to play, and the Saints had no timeouts. Smith decided to punt.

Said Smith: “If we don’t get it, they are even closer (to the end zone). Sure, there’s a part of me that wanted to go for it. If I had to do over again, knowing the end result, I’d go for it.”

I know the end result, and I’m still OK with the Falcons punting there. Making the Saints drive the field for a field goal with no timeouts is a reasonable decision. Atlanta’s pass rush had been consistent for three quarters, but it wasn’t late. Winston also made pinpoint throws under pressure. His decision-making is shaky, but when Winston is on the talent shines.

The Saints salvaged a victory after playing poorly for three quarters. It wasn’t a case of the visitors shooting themselves in the foot. It was the home team forcing the Saints to trip over their feet. They were bad because the Falcons made them look that way.

The Falcons got to Winston four sacks. Their high last season was three, at Tampa Bay in September. Taysom Hill broke off a long run when the Falcons lined up wrong in the first half but, otherwise, they kept New Orleans’ ground game in check.

The Falcons had things working on offense for a while, too. As promised, Smith designed a scheme that features Mariota’s mobility. His accuracy was off Sunday but he kept down-and-distance manageable by finding yards in not much space. Mariota had 335 total yards and ran for a score.

Smith pledged the Falcons would be more physical this season. Check that box for Week 1, too. Cordarrelle Patterson battered the Saints for 120 yards and a TD. The Falcons totaled 201 yards rushing on 38 carries. The longest run went for 16 yards. They

The Falcons pushed around the Saints for , until they didn’t.

“It is what it is,” Smith said. “We lost the game. We didn’t make enough plays. We really could have put them away. Got to give the Saints credit. They made one more play than we did.”

The Falcons were up by two scores at halftime. Smith’s teams were 4-0 in 2021 when leading by at least nine points at the break. They never gave back the lead to three struggling teams: the Panthers, Jaguars and Jets. The Saints came back to gain the lead in the fourth quarter last season in New Orleans, only to blow it in the final minute.

This time, New Orleans got the lead back for good. The Falcons collapsed.

“We’ve got 16 games (left),” Smith said. “If we have the right mindset we’ll improve from this and become a better team.”

That’s possible. The Falcons lost a close game to a good team. It happens all the time in the NFL. It’s the way the Falcons lost that looks bad. `Failing to finish means that whatever happened before the collapse doesn’t matter as much. It will mean even less if the Falcons get handled by the Rams in L.A. next weekend.

If Smith’s Falcons don’t want to hear that narrative then it’s up to them to do something about it.

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