The South is not enough...but boy we ‘ll take it!
So while many Americans settled down for their Thanksgiving turkey, the UK Saints fans were reaching for another cup of coffee trying to stay awake for this 1.20am kick off. The Saints (9-2) made the short trip to division rivals the Atlanta Falcons (3-8) not only looking to avenge the Week 10 loss but to clinch their third straight NFC South title and a place in the playoffs as division winners, and what better place to try do it than in Atlanta’s back yard.
The Saints came into the game without Andrus Peat and Terron Armstead, two big losses on the offensive line but were handed an early Xmas present when Falcons star wide receiver Julio Jones and Tight End Austin Hooper were ruled inactive before kick-off. The Saints were coming off a last gasp Field Goal victory against the Carolina Panthers (34-31) whilst the Falcons got back to being the Atlanta Falcons losing to Tampa Bay (35-22). But as we know form goes out the window in division games and there is no room for complacency, for the Saints this was must win!!
The Saints made the perfect start sacking Matt Ryan on the first snap of the game, you could sense straight away the Saints defence were not in any mood to give Ryan time in the pocket. The Falcons went 3 and out and that gave Saints chance to block a punt deep in Atlanta’s half, step up yes….you guessed it.. Taysom Hill…is there anything this guy can’t do? not only did he block the punt to set the Saints up on Atlanta’s 30 yard line he then proceeded to score the game’s first TD on the Saints opening drive. Wil Lutz calmly converted the extra point to put Saints up 7-0 early on.
As well all know penalties have been the thorn in the side of this Saints team (86 this season), some questionable some just down to stupidity. The first quarter saw no change giving up 2 personal fouls (Lattimore, Von Bell) and a pass interference call on Eli Apple taking our total penalties to 89 for the season. Eli Apple would go on to make 2 more pass interference fouls taking his personal total for the season to 5, the highest in the NFL. The Saints would go on to concede 9 penalties taking their season total to 95. This is something that really needs to be addressed or I feel it will kill any hopes of us making the Super Bowl given better teams will more likely punish us.
The second quarter began with Matt Ryan looking for Christian Blake when he had Ridley wide open in the end zone, they were unable to convert on fourth down and the Saints took over on their own two yard line, Brees threw to Thomas for 6 yard gain, he was then pressured into throwing it away on 2nd down, the run by Kamara was stopped thanks to Grady Jarret. After the Saints punt Matt Ryan began the Falcons drive from their own 45, another PI call on Eli Apple during the drive gave the Falcons chance to answer back which they did, Matt Ryan setting up Jaeden Graham for his first NFL touchdown to make it 7-6 to the Saints. Younghoe Koo then missed the extra point and would go on to have a very unproductive night for kickers standards, going 2 for 3 on field goals and 0 for 1 on extra points. The 4 points he left off the board could have proved more costly for the Falcons late on in the game. Right before half time Taysom Hill would finish off a 4 play 68 yard drive to run in a TD from 30 yards on 3rd and 1 becoming the first player in NFL history to complete a pass, catch a TD, and block a punt from a 4 point stance. It would not surprise me if he throws a 50 yard hail mary to himself in the Super Bowl, the term dual threat Quarterback would not do him justice. The half ended with the Saints leading 17-9 after Koo finally found the big gap between the posts with 8 seconds on the clock.
At this point most of us Saints fans where probably sat back enjoying what looked to be a routine stress free victory….this is the Saints though nothing is ever plain sailing. The third quarter began with the Saints on their own 9 yard line after yes you guessed it…. a good return is called back for a penalty, the next three drives resulted in no points until the Saints took a 47 yard field goal to make it 20-9 and make it a two score game going into the 4th quarter.
The Saints would go on to add two more field goals early into the 4th quarter taking the score to a nice stress free 26-9. Matt Ryan then completed a big pass to Jaeden Graham then after an incomplete pass on 1st down connected with Russell Gage for a 13 yard touchdown making it 26-15.
The Falcons could sense a way back in to this game and the Saints looked tired after giving everything throughout the game, we entered garbage time, a term used to refer to the period of a game that has or should have been won already where any extra gains or points for the opposition don’t matter, the only thing garbage here was the shambolic efforts of the Saints special teams. With the score at 26-15 Atlanta went for an onside kick to regain possession, given last year’s rule changes this made onside kicks a near impossible feat, this is the Saints though anything can happen and usually does, Atlanta went for it and won the ball back after Foyesade Oloukun grabbed the ball, they were then whistled for being offside. Surely the Saints would collect the next one…. Koo went for another one and this time Oloukun got it again with no penalty, Koo then converted a field goal to make it 26-18 and a 1 score game. The Falcons then lined up another onside kick from the restart and got it again. Ryan would go on to get sacked 3 times on the next drive bringing the game to a close. New Orleans had clinched the NFC South for the third year running and for first time in franchise history they have won it three times in a row, it also secured a place in the playoffs.
There were a lot of positives to take from the game, Davenport, Davis and Jordan in beast mode as usual, clinching the NFC South division title in Atlanta, pay back for the week 10 loss and players like Patrick Omameh stepping up when needed on the offensive line and protecting Brees well, there were fears with Armstead injured the six sacks Brees suffered in the previous Falcons game would increase, quite the opposite they completely vanished with zero sacks recorded. But as with the Saints there are always negatives, missed catches, penalties (Season total of 95 and 9 for 121 yards in this game), oh and onside kick defence. In order to win a Super Bowl some things need to be addressed and quickly. But at the end of the day the Saints took the Win and celebrated by tucking into some turkey on the Atlanta pitch after the game. The Saints have a record on the road in the playoffs of 1-5 but are 6-1 at home so home field advantage looks to be key in giving Saints a chance to contest for the Super Bowl in Miami. The Saints host the San Francisco 49ers next week in another must win game and what is set up to be a great game.
And before I go a big shout out to Rookie defensive lineman Shy Tuttle for not only intercepting Matt Ryan but proceeding to putting him flat on his back with one of the most brutal stiff arms of the season. Oh how I laughed!!