The Atlanta Falcons were uncharacteristically stingy in their 30-14 victory over NFC South rival New Orleans Sunday at the Superdome. Atlanta (6-9) showed a pass rush that had been absent for what seems like years, sacking Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times. In addition to the sacks, Atlanta defenders hit Brees six times, forced a fumble that Falcon linebacker Osi Umenyiora returned 86 yards for a touchdown, and caused two key interceptions.
In sweeping the Saints (6-9) on the season, the Atlanta Falcons (6-9) ended the Saints’ playoff hopes in the dismal NFC South. Now Atlanta controls its own destiny in the playoff hunt. With a win over the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) next Sunday in Atlanta, the Falcons can clinch the NFC South Division title and a trip to the playoffs.
New Orleans opened the scoring with a touchdown just 20 seconds into the game. Jalen Saunders took the opening kickoff from Matt Bosher 99 yards before he was taken down at the Atlanta 1-yard line. Mark Ingram took the first play from scrimmage off left tackle for the touchdown. Atlanta answered with a Matt Bryant 44-yard field goal on the next possession to make it 7-3, where it held through the first quarter.
Atlanta controlled the line of scrimmage in the second quarter, shutting out New Orleans while adding another 50-yard field goal by Bryant and a pretty 3-yard shovel pass from quarterback Matt Ryan to wide receiver Eric Weems for a touchdown. The dominance along the line continued into the third quarter for Atlanta, as they again held the Saints scoreless while continuing to harass Brees. Atlanta added a 31-yard touchdown dash from rookie running back Devonta Freeman to make it 20-7.
New Orleans began to come back in the fourth quarter after a series of injuries left the Atlanta secondary depleted. Crafty veteran Brees exploited the inexperienced and mismatched secondary to drive the Saints into Atlanta territory several times. However, tough defense and some good fortune for Atlanta kept the Saints from overcoming the deficit.
The key play in the game may have been the most controversial. Down 20-7 to start the fourth quarter, the Saints had a 1st and 10 from the Atlanta 14-yard line. Drew Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 12-yard pass in the middle of the field. Graham was immediately hit Falcons’ safeties Kemal Ishmael and Dezman Southward, but continued to fight towards the end zone. As Graham neared the goal line, Ishmael ripped the ball free, causing a fumble. With no whistle sounding, Ishmael picked it up and returned it 18 yards to the Atlanta 20-yard line. The play was ruled a fumble on the field, and was upheld by the booth.