If the Atlanta Falcons were in search of a quick dose of medicine to cure any lingering memories of last season's dismal performances, they found plenty of it as a Matt Bryant field goal lifted the team to a 37-34 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon.
Having trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half, Atlanta capitalized on poor open field tackling by their arch rivals, won the turnover battle, and rode the arm of Matt Ryan to the tune of a career high 448 yards and 3 touchdowns as the quarterback completed 31 of 43 pass attempts.
The reliable Bryant had only tied the game at 34 as time expired in regulation. However, on New Orleans' first posession of the extra stanza, receiver Marques Colston fumbled, gifting the Falcons posession inside the Saints' 40 and putting Atlanta in position to seal the game with a field goal. Under the revised overtime rules, since New Orleans had already posessed the football, Atlanta did not have to score a touchdown to end the game. And that was fine by Mike Smith and his players, as the Falcons watched Bryant's 52-yard field goal sail through the uprights. Matty Ice was on full display Sunday.
When winning the turnover battle, the Saints entered Sunday's game with a record of 36-1 under coach Sean Payton. It was Atlanta that emerged the winner in that battle, recording a pair of takeaways to the Saints' solo forced turnover, when Jairus Byrd stripped Julio Jones as the Falcons' receiver prepared to cross the goal line in the first quarter.
Ryan's career high in yardage was predicated off a patient passing attack, with a once again healthy Jones, a still effective Roddy White, effective slot play from Harry Douglas and Devin Hester, and the raw skills of young tight end Levine Toilolo, who hauled in a crucial 3rd quarter touchdown pass that helped kickstart Atlanta's run towards victory.
New Orleans looked like the more dominant force throughout the first half, as a pair of methodical drives led to two Shayne Graham field goals. The Saints converted some key third-downs, a mirror image of last season when New Orleans' offense finished ranked among the top 5 teams in 3rd down conversion rates, whereas the Atlanta defense ranked dead last in stopping their opponents.
Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks was featured throughout the first half, and the talented youngster more than lived up to the hype, capping his first regular season appearance with 7 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, while also handling punt return duties.
After Byrd had dislodged the ball from an end zone-bound Jones late in the first quarter, the Saints charged down the field, and capped off an impressive drive with a short touchdown run from Khiry Robinson to give them a 13-0 lead. The offense was clicking, the run defense was stout, and the secondary was holding up well.
However, it was at this point that the Falcons seemingly woke up, and patience was, indeed, a virtue as Ryan ignited the passing attack with a key throw down the sideline to Hester, a veteran who at times struggled to provide consistency as an offensive weapon in Chicago, while often making most of his impact in the return game.
Then, Stephen Jackson had his first big run of the season, a vintage tote down to the Saints' 31 yard line. A pass interference call on Corey White extended the drive, and rookie Devonta Freeman made an impact, lining up out wide and barreling through a couple of would-be tacklers to set Atlanta up with a 1st and goal opportunity. On the very next play, Ryan hit White with a back shoulder fade, and the Falcons were on the board.
New Orleans was not rattled, and the Saints responded with a fantastic drive of their own as Brees hit Cooks and Colston quickly down the field to get into scoring range. Moments later, the rookie from Oregon State had his first official taste of the end zone, reeling in a 3 yard reception from Brees to reinforce the 13 point lead.
What happened next may have been the most important momentum swing in the game.
With just 24 seconds to work with, Ryan and the Falcons, rather than taking a knee and heading into the locker room, decided to take a shot, and the quarterback found White downfield for a 39 yard strike to set the team up for a long field goal attempt. Bryant connected, and the Falcons took some positive energy into the dressing room, down 20-10.
Atlanta wasted no time as the second half got underway, driving 80 yards in just over 5 minutes as Ryan hit Toilolo in the end zone to trim the deficit to 3. The teams would exchange punts before New Orleans put together an impressive-looking drive of their own, only for Brees to throw his first interception of the season as Robert McClain picked off a pass intended for Cooks in the end zone. The first of many? Brandin Cooks got his first taste of an NFL end zone on Sunday.
Atlanta moved the ball towards midfield, and struck gold when RB Antone Smith took advantage of poor tackling in space to bust his way 54 yards off a swing pass all the way to paydirt. Just like that, the Falcons had their first lead of the day, just minutes after staring another double digit deficit right in the face.
The Saints were not shaken, as Brees converted another key pair of third downs through the air, hitting Cooks and Jimmy Graham against zone coverage. The Saints converted another 3rd down as Pierre Thomas took a pass out of the backfield for 19 yards. Following the blocks of Jonathan Goodwin and Ben Grubbs, Mark Ingram raced inside the 5 yard line with an impressive run, and found the end zone a play later to put the Saints back on top 27-24.
The Saints defense finally got back to first half form, as Tyrunn Walker brought Ryan down for the game's first sack. However, New Orleans was unable to produce a drive or waste much time, and had to punt the ball back to Atlanta.
The Falcons were faced with another 3rd down conundrum of their own, but capitalized at Ryan hit Hester down the sideline, exploiting the Saints' cover 2 defense. Ryan then hooked up with Douglas for a 23 yard gain, which put Atlanta within striking distance once again. The Falcons would take the lead just moments later, when Jacquizz Rodgers spun his way through a pair of missed tackles and into the end zone to put his team back on top, 31-27.
Drew Brees and his teammates took the ball and responded in their own right, and the owner of 34 career game-winning drives confidently took to the field. The drive started with two successful pass plays to Pierre Thomas and Graham, followed by a pass interference call on Robert Alford, who made a little too much contact with Marques Colston. On the next play, Brees went Colston's way again, and a nice catch-and-run by Thomas brought the ball down to the 1 yard line. Two plays later, Ingram found the end zone for the second time, and New Orleans was back in front by 3 points with just under 90 seconds to play.
Now, it was Matty Ice's turn, and the Falcons' quarterback did not let the opportunity to tie or take the lead slip away. Ryan hit Douglas and Hester to quickly cross midfield and get to within striking distance for his kicker, Bryant, whose career-long make stands at 62 yards. As time ticked away, the veteran placekicker nailed a 51 yarder to tie things up and send the game into overtime. Roddy White and Julio Jones had their share of big moments Sunday.
New Orleans got the ball first, but on the second play, Colston lost the ball while trying to gain some extra yardage. The Falcons were now in front in the turnover battle, and poised to take the lead on the most important ledger, the scoreboard.
After a couple of safe calls, Atlanta sent Bryant out for the 52 yard field goal attempt, and he comfortably connected, giving the Falcons a well-deserved 37-34 victory.
The Saints will rue the many missed tackles, two key turnovers, and poor intermediate coverage, as a once-comfortable lead slipped away and turned into a frustrating season opening loss.
In what was an exciting finish to yet another intriguing battle in this rivalry, both teams combined for 17 points in the final 2:50 of regulation, and neither defense had a day to remember as the offenses combined for over 1,000 yards, 568 of which were compiled by Atlanta.
The Saints were efficient offensively, sans the two giveaways, but must improve their tackling, something defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be sure to hammer home as his team prepares for the Cleveland Browns in practice this week.
At the end, it was an opportunity lost for the Saints and an opportunity seized by the Falcons. Last season is done and dusted, and the Falcons, for the time being, have discovered the antidote they needed to officially kick their 2014 season off in the right manner. The team featured on HBO's Hard Knocks dealt their rivals quite the knock, indeed.
For the Saints, it is back to the drawing board. Improved play in space and open field tackling will be points of emphasis, and the team knows they can not solely rely upon Brees and his offensive teammates to carry the load, as has been the case at time sin years past. New Orleans' defensive improvement was paramount to their success in 2013. Better execution and attention to detail will get them back to that level, and if the Saints are to build off of last season's success and kickstart another Super Bowl charge, it will take much better than what was on display at the Georgia Dome Sunday.
The mistakes are correctable and the lessons will be learned. The sting of defeat has been experienced, and for a veteran group like the New Orleans Saints, now suddenly in search of their own pain remedy, the best thing to do is to shift the focus to the next game.