Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan celebrates a 37-34 overtime victory over the Saints in their NFL football game on Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, in Atlanta.
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Ryan carries Falcons to thrilling win over Saints

Quarterback Matt Ryan was determined not to let the Falcons lose.

Ryan ran around the Georgia Dome, spinning away from defenders and then slinging darts down the field as he led the Falcons to a thrilling 37-34 overtime victory over the favored New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Ryan passed for a franchise-record 448 yards as he led the Falcons back from two double-digit deficits. Safety William Moore came up with a big forced fumble in overtime and kicker Matt Bryant was clutch with two field goals of more than 50 yards, including the game-winner from 52 yards.

“I thought Matt may have played his best game as an Atlanta Falcon,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He’s played a lot of games for us and has made a lot of plays. But I was really impressed with his ability to extend some plays today. (He was) moving in the pocket, actually getting out and running the football. I thought he was very, very accurate.”

Ryan completed 31 of 43 passes and tossed three touchdowns. He also became the franchise’s all-time leader for touchdown passes, topping Steve Bartkowski’s mark of 154 with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo in the third quarter.

Ryan’s 448 passing yards topped Chris Chandler’s single-game record of 431 yards set against the Buffalo Bills in 2001. The Falcons amassed 568 total net years in the victory, the highest single-game yardage total in franchise history. Atlanta topped the previous mark of 563 yards set against the St. Louis Rams in 1980.

The Falcons wanted to establish a rushing attack to balance out Ryan’s passes. Using a committee of four running backs, they ran for 123 yards on 25 carries, with Ryan contributing 15 yards on three scrambles.

“When you are out there playing, you kind of see the situation of the game and you just try to go out there and make the plays you need to make in order to win,” Ryan said. “Today, I thought, passing-wise we did a great job.”

It took Ryan and the Falcons a while to get going. The Saints opened a 20-7, but Ryan and the offense went down to add a field goal as time expired in the first half.

The Falcons, juggling their offensive line because of an ankle injury to prized-rookie Jake Matthews (ankle), rallied to take two second-half leads, but couldn’t hold them.

They needed a 51-yard field goal by Bryant to force overtime.

While the Falcons offense was sputtering along, the Saints took control of the game in the first half as they raced out to a 20-10 halftime lead. The Falcons had a costly fumble by wide receiver Julio Jones inside the 5-yard line. He was stripped of the ball by Saints safety Jairus Byrd, who recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback.

In the third quarter, the Falcons came out strong. Ryan took them down for a touchdown to make it 20-17. After an exchange of punts, defensive back Robert McClain intercepted Drew Brees in the back of the end zone.

The Falcons tossed a short pass out to Antone Smith, who split two defenders and used his blazing speed to out-run the safety on a 54-yard touchdown run to put the Falcons up 24-20.

“I had an inside release on the linebacker on a passing route,” Antone Smith said. “Matt Ryan then got the ball to me in a nice position to make a play on the defender.”

Brees went back on the attack and running back Mark Ingram capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.

After an exchange of punts, the Falcons answered with running back Jacquizz Rodgers scoring on a 17-yard touchdown run. Rodgers’ run capped an eight-play, 94 yard drive to put the Falcons up 27-24.

But the defense couldn’t hold as Ingram added another touchdown.

Ryan had 1:20 left and one timeout. He guided the Falcons down to Saints’ 33 in seven plays and Matt Bryant kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired.

The Saints had the ball first in overtime, but on their second play, Moore knocked the ball away from wide receiver Marques Colston and linebacker Joplo Bartu recovered it at New Orlean’s 38.

“I saw that they had something basically setup for our defense,” Moore said. “They took advantage of it and changed their routes. I did what I try to do all the time, I tried to finish. Let him catch the ball, go a tackle him and I tried to get the ball out.”

The Falcons played it safe. After two running plays that netted 4 yards and an incomplete pass, Bryant came on to kick the game-winner.

“You put everything on hold to keep your mind clear,” Bryant said. “I just had to keep my head down and kick the ball.”

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