By: David Schiele
ATLANTA – This was not a pretty game. But in the NFC South, no game is. The Saints committed 11 penalties, and Matt Ryan threw three interceptions. However, it was Drew Brees’s lone interception to Deion Jones that sent Mercedes-Benz Stadium into a frenzy and gave the Falcons a 20-17 win on Thursday night.
The real difference in this game occurred at the end of the first half. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore intercepted Matt Ryan and returned the football to Atlanta’s 29-yard line. With only four seconds remaining until halftime, the Saints decided to kick a field goal. Kicker Wil Lutz made the field goal, but the Saints players were not properly lined up. This drew an illegal formation penalty, negating the field goal. Those missing three points proved fatal for New Orleans.
“Usually, you get a warning with that,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton about the illegal formation foul. “Especially when you have a back-up in.”
There was no warning for Sean Payton at the end of the game either, when he aggressively charged towards an official. That gesture led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave Atlanta the first down they needed to seal the win.
“I called a timeout, and then he asked me again, and I said ‘I’ve already called the timeout.’ Probably said it with a little more oomph or vigor than I was supposed to (but) I had enough,” said Payton.
Payton’s frustration is understandable. Before his lashing out against the officials, the Saints had already given the Falcons eight first downs via penalties. One of which helped Atlanta complete at 15-play, 90-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Not only did penalties hinder New Orleans, but injuries also played a significant role. The Saints lost rookie running back Alvin Kamara, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and safety Kenny Vaccaro during the game.
As much as Saints fans may want to attribute these things to the Falcons’ win, credit must be given to the Atlanta defense. They held New Orleans to 17 points and 50 rushing yards, both season lows for the Saints.
“For our defense to step up and play the way they did tonight was impressive,” said Matt Ryan.
The Falcons quarterback needed his defense to be impressive. This was one of his worst games of the season. He threw three interceptions on back-to-back-to-back drives.
“I’ve had worse games,” said Ryan. “…I’ve thrown five before.”
Two of his interceptions were passes intended for Julio Jones, including one in the end zone.
“We don’t care about that,” said Julio Jones when asked how the Falcons were able to bounce back from the consecutive turnovers. “That’s just the mentality that you have to have. Next play, next play, you can’t dwell on the play before.”
That mentality kept the Falcons sharp in the fourth quarter, enabling them to score 10 unanswered points.
The victory puts the Falcons in position to win the NFC South. They will have to win their remaining three games to do so. The first of which will be next Monday night in Tampa Bay, versus the Buccaneers. A rematch with the Saints will be six days after that.
Although, Matt Ryan let it known that the Falcons will remain focused on what’s directly ahead.
“At this point, this time of the year, all that matters is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 10 or 11 days. We’ll get to the Saints in two weeks.”