There’s hardly an opponent the New Orleans Saints enjoy beating more than the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons, especially with a chance to clinch a playoff berth. Two weeks after sacking Matt Ryan eight times in New Orleans, the Saints escaped Atlanta with their eighth sweep of the “Dirty Birds” since 2006, after a 21-16 victory that was entirely too close for comfort – though if you stop to think about it, it shouldn’t have been that close.
The Saints were ahead 21-9 early in the fourth quarter. The defense hadn’t allowed a touchdown in 14 straight quarters and had just forced a Matt Ryan fumble at the Atlanta 18-yard line. So Hill and the offense had a chance to pad their lead with at least a field goal. A touchdown might have put the game out of reach the way the defense was dominating yet again.
But instead, trying to avoid a sack, Hill fumbled the ball away – and the Falcons marched down the field 85 yards for a touchdown. How amazing it would have been to keep Atlanta out of the end zone for both games! But getting the win was far more important, as the defense had to step up twice more to finish it off – again in the red zone and finally on a Hail Mary as time expired.
The Saints haven’t to win a heart attack-style game since a 3-point win at Chicago way back on Nov. 1. So what 3 things did we learn from this win that turned into a nail-biter?
Can you believe Sean Payton and the Saints are 8-0 without Drew Brees the past two seasons? Brees is eligible to return in Week 14 at Philadelphia, but it’s certainly not definite. The Eagles are in an identity crisis, so I’d say let Hill go one more week, and focus on a potential Brees return for the marquee matchup Dec. 20 against the 11-1 Kansas City Chiefs. The Saints will need their full arsenal if they want to win that one.
Great defense, especially in the red zone where the Falcons were just 1-for-4, is what you need to win on the road, in case Green Bay overtakes the Saints for the No. 1 seed. Sunday’s win gives the Saints a 23-7 road mark in regular season games since 2017 (credit my friend Mike Detillier for that one!). For a team whose hallmark is winning at home, that’s pretty darn good!
Keep up the ground attack. I watched Melvin Gordon and the Denver Broncos run all over the Chiefs for 179 yards in the Sunday night game and thought, “This is the recipe for beating Kansas City – keep Patrick Mahomes on the sideline.” Denver just failed to score enough points to get the job done. The Saints meanwhile rushed 36 times for 207 yards Sunday at Atlanta, with Alvin Kamara leading the pack with 88 yards and a score, and they are 7th in the NFL with 140.8 rushing yards per game. If they can dominate time of possession with a balanced attack like they did Sunday (36:54-23:06), and succeed in the red zone, that’s a recipe for winning in the postseason.
Given Hill’s rushing ability and the Falcons’ strength against the run (ranked 6th entering Week 11) and their porous passing defense (31st in the NFL), we knew both teams would bring their best game plans to this historically intense division rivalry.
What we didn’t know was how relentlessly the Saints defense would pressure Matt Ryan and make it look like it was his first NFL start. New Orleans feasted on eight sacks (three by Cam Jordan) and two interceptions and limited the Falcons to 2-of-14 on 3rd-down conversions, keeping the visiting Dirty Birds out of the end zone in a 24-9 victory. Coupled with Green Bay’s loss at Indianapolis, the Saints are now in sole possession of the NFC’s top spot at 8-2 as they ride a seven-game winning streak into Thanksgiving.
Remember when New Orleans was 1-2 after falling flat to the Packers in a fanless Mercedes-Benz Superdome? That 37-30 loss feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Now I’ll be the first to say many of the Saints’ wins have been downright ugly, but their defense the past three games has been nothing short of outstanding. Let’s look at the numbers:
Give credit to Dennis Allen for suffocating Tom Brady & the Bucs, the 49ers and now the Falcons. The Saints trailed against both San Francisco and Atlanta, but again they were resilient without Drew Brees at the helm. Their star quarterback will be out at least two more games with 11 rib fractures and a punctured lung, and I’m of the opinion the Saints should let Brees recover until their marquee matchup Dec. 20 against Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs – the next time they’ll be in the Dome after three straight road contests.
Taysom Hill didn’t play perfectly Sunday with some passes badly underthrown and a lost fumble for the second straight game. His stats won’t pop off the charts either (18-of-23 passing for 233 yards with two rushing touchdowns). But with the way the Saints defense is playing, Hill doesn’t need to be perfect – he just needs to build on Sunday’s performance in the next three games against opponents that are mediocre at best:
Nov. 29, 3:05 p.m. CT: at Broncos (4-6)
Dec. 6, noon CT: at Falcons (3-7)
Dec. 13, 3:25 p.m. CT: at Eagles (3-6-1)
So with six games left in the regular season, the Saints just have to keep winning and they’ll have a chance to lock up the No. 1 seed and the only first-round bye in the new playoff format. It’s all there for the taking. They just have to remain resilient.