Wins for the Atlanta Falcons in their rivalry with the New Orleans Saints have been quite rare over the last seven years, but this year was the return to sweep form, as teams with mirroring records looks like they don’t belong in the same sentence. It wasn’t so easy for Drew Brees and his defense in a 17-13 win, but it’s hard to think of any other longstanding division rivalry looking so empty of parity and fairness at the moment.
Maybe someday someone will right a book on the misfortune and tragedy in the Falcons collapsing from a 13-3 team, yards away from a second Super Bowl, into one of the worst teams in the NFL less than a year later. They’re at 2-9, reduced to an empty shell from the confident, championship-caliber team everyone had in mind when the season started.
The Saints are on the opposite path. Rising, back to where they’re used to be, thanks to Sean Payton coming back from suspension and Rob Ryan doing a bit more than just ordering his players to blitz all the time. Drew Brees (278 yards, 2 touchdown passes) is great as ever; a legitimate MVP candidate; but the Saints giving up over 20 points only twice this season is just as big of a reason for their success this season.
The Saints didn’t demolish the Falcons, who gained 355 yards of total offense and even did pretty well on third down, converting 50% of their chances. However, they worked too many time with long yardage situations – Matt Ryan got sacked five times, and after Steven Jackson ran for a touchdown to open the scoring, things got pretty difficult for the Falcons. As always, the Saints were extremely effective in pass-rushing during the second half. Ryan was sacked on 16% of his dropbacks in that half, and the Saints have now gotten 19 second-half sacks this season, tied for third in the NFL. The Saints have recorded a sack on 9.0% of opponent dropbacks this season, tied with the Rams for the highest rate in the league, almost double the rate from last season.
So while the defense kept getting to Ryan, Drew Brees just did what he usually does, and that’s pass with pace and efficiency, not having too many problems in the Georgia Dome. He handled the extra pressure well, going 11-of-17 for 134 yards and a touchdown when the Falcons rushed 5 or more at him. Not surprising, considering have allowed 14 touchdown passes when sending 5 or more rushers this season, more than anyone in the NFL.
The connection with Jimmy Graham worked overtime, as the tight end caught 5 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. It came on a 44-yard pass, which gives both Brees (with 13) and Graham (with 6) the lead in touchdowns this season on throws for 15 yards or more downfield. Brees threw 10 interceptions on such throws last season, but only two this year. Graham is now tied with Calvin Johnson for 11 touchdown receptions this season, and also had his sixth 100-yard game in 2013, tied with A.J. Green for most in the league. The only other tight end to record 6 100-yard receiving games in a season is Tony Gonzalez, who did it twice during his career – in 2000 and 2004. Gonzalez caught four passes for 43 yards in the loss.
Sean Payton – We knew coming here was going to be a challenge. The two teams, the history, regardless of the record, it has always been a close game, and tonight was no exception.