NEW ORLEANS — The Falcons, with an opportunity to defend their NFC South title and improve their playoff status, were routed by the New Orleans Saints 45-16 before 70,086 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Falcons (9-6) entered the game with a playoff berth clinched and had an outside chance to capture the division crown with a victory over New Orleans and a win over Tampa Bay, coupled with a Saints’ loss to Carolina.
But the Saints (12-3) were near flawless for much of this evening. Saints quarterback Drew Brees entered the game needing 305 yards passing to break Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a single season. The mark of 5,084 yards set in 1984.
He tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles with 2:51 left in the fourth quarter for the mark.
The Falcons were not offended by the Saints running the up the score.
“It’s our job to go out there and stop them,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if they are running the ball or throwing the ball. The job of our defense is to go out and stop them. Again, my hat is off to Drew Brees. It’s a record that’s been long-standing. He’s had a great season.”
The Falcons traded shots with the Saints early before things got out of hand. The defense couldn’t couldn’t keep up with sensational quarterback Drew Brees.
With Brees on target, the Saints went on touchdown drives of 84, 81, 80 and 86 yards on four of their first six possessions. The Saints defense got in on the scoring in the fourth quarter when safety Malcolm Jenkins scooped up a Julio Jones fumble and ran it in for a 30-yard touchdown.
If the playoffs started today, the Falcons would be the No. 6 seed and play the third-seeded Saints. Things could change if the Falcons beat Tampa Bay and Detroit manages to lose to Green Bay, which figures to rest its starters with the No. 1 seed wrapped up.
“We have a lot more expectation than just getting into the playoffs,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. We have a goal as a team to get into the palyoffs and make a deep run and not just be satisfied with making the playoffs.”
The Falcons rallied from a 23-10 halftime deficit against Carolina on Oct. 16, but these Saints, who clinched the NFC South with the victory, were a far superior team.
On the strength of the league’s most potent passing attack, the Saints held a 21-10 lead over the Falcons at halftime.
Brees’ first pass play of the game went for 38 yards. Brees, a candidate for the league’s MVP award, was 15 of 25 for 230 yards in the first half.
Much like their earlier game at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons marched down the field on their opening drive only to have the promising start stall. The Falcons moved the ball 64 yards on 11 plays, converting on two third downs, before Matt Bryant came on and made a 34-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 8:53 left in the first quarter.
The Saints entered the game averaging 32.6 points per game, second in the league. The Falcons were well aware they needed touchdowns, not field goals.
The Saints came right back and scored a touchdown on their first drive. Running back Pierre Thomas slammed into the end zone from 4 yards to cap an eight-play, 84-yard drive.
On their second possession, the Falcons put the ball to rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. On the eighth play of the drive, quarterback Matt Ryan hooked up with Jones for a 21-yard touchdown, putting the Falcons up 10-7. Jones also caught a 25-yarder in the drive.
Brees, however, marched the Saints down the field again, mixing in runs while converting on a third-and-12 pass from Atlanta’s 49. On the completion, the Falcons sent nickel back Dominique Franks on a blitz after Brees, who scrambled forward and threw a strike to Marques Colston while leaning awkwardly. Four plays later, Brees tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Colston to make it 14-10, giving the Saints the lead for good.
The Falcons’ next drive stalled, but the defense caught a major break. Brees drove the Saints down the field, only to have tight end Jimmy Graham drop an apparent touchdown pass and a turnover result, all at once. Safety William Moore alertly batted the ball up in the air and Franks intercepted the ball in the end zone.
The Falcons, going with their no-huddle attack, faced a third-and-10 from their 42-yard line that was converted for an apparent first down on a pass to wide receiver Harry Douglas. However, the play was nullified by a holding penalty on running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The drive stalled and the Falcons were forced to punt.
“We have to get a lot better in the red zone,” Ryan said. “We needed a lot more touchdowns than the field goals we got out there. For some reason, we just didn’t play our best football tonight.”
The Saints took the ball with 2:19 left in the first half and promptly marched another touchdown. Brees found Jimmy Graham in the back of the end zone on a 9-yard touchdown pass, exploiting single coverage from Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes and building the 21-10 lead.
New Orleans was 8-for-8 on third-down conversions in the first half.
The 29-point defeat was the worse loss in Smith’s four years as the head coach. The Falcons loss by 27 points to Green Bay in the playoffs last season and 34-7 to Philadelphia in 2009.
The 29-point margin was the largest in the series since the Saints beat the Falcons 38-0 back in 1987.