The Saints really should have beaten the Falcons on Thursday Night Football.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan played a horrible game. He went 15-of-27 for 221 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions—and he should have thrown a fourth pick, but New Orleans linebacker Manti Te’o dropped it (granted, one of the passes that did get picked off was a fluke). The Falcons scored just 20 points on Thursday, and half of that total came in the fourth quarter. With the way the Saints’ defense was playing, New Orleans’s vaunted offense should have been able to put Atlanta away well before the Falcons had a chance to rally.
But while Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense didn’t spit the ball up the way the Ryan and the Falcons did, they didn’t go anywhere either. Brees had 271 yards on 35 attempts—a respectable but not eye-popping number—but for a team that has increasingly made its living on the ground this year, the Saints’ 50 rushing yards on 15 carries was stunning. That low total was in part because rookie Alvin Kamara, the team’s do-everything running back, left the game in the first quarter and was later diagnosed with a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet hit. New Orleans could have turned to Mark Ingram, the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, but the Saints stuck with the pass and ended the game, a 20-17 loss, with five punts and one inexplicable interception.
First off: Credit to Deion Jones. His ability to muscle for position here meant the throw never had a chance.
But the throw itself, which already looks very un-Brees-like, is even worse given the context. The Saints were down three, but were well within field goal range. As long as disaster didn’t strike, they could have at least kicked a chip shot field goal to force overtime. But the Saints didn’t play the clock at all — they own one of the best rushing attacks in the league, but handed it to Ingram just once in their final seven plays. Consider this: Even if Brees connected on that throw, he’d have given the ball back to Ryan and the Falcons with 80 seconds left.
The Falcons needed a first down on their ensuing drive to put the game on ice, and something even more incomprehensible happened. The Saints’ defense successfully put Atlanta in what should have been a third-and-6, and head coach Sean Payton ran onto the field, seemingly to call a timeout. The official nearest to him threw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct—a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down.
This was the culmination of a night of mistakes for the Saints: It was the ninth first down the Falcons gained on a Saints’ penalty, and it sealed the Falcons’ win. Sure, the odds were already slim, as New Orleans would have had only 20 seconds left if it forced a punt here, but at least there would have been a chance. The Saints are supposed to be one of the best teams in the league, and they shouldn’t lose after the opposing quarterback throws three picks.
Meanwhile, the Falcons beat one of the best teams in the league even after three interceptions. Now they’re 8-5 and lurking on the edge of playoff contention. A division title is still in play for Atlanta, too. With the Panthers at 8-4 and the Saints now at 9-4, any of the three could come out on top. Luckily for New Orleans, they have a chance to avenge this loss in just two weeks.