"Monday Night Football" went exactly as advertised. While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated the direction of America, the Falcons and Saints debated who could play the least amount of defense and still walk away with the win.
The Falcons won that debate, doing just enough defensively and plenty enough offensively to beat the Saints in New Orleans 45-32. Points were scored (77), yards were gained (916), and wacky methods were included, like a flea-flicker and a totally botched punt-return -- and those two plays came in the first quarter alone.
With the win, the Falcons move to 2-1 and into the top spot in the NFC South. At 0-3, the Saints are alone in the depths of the division.
After an even first quarter, the Falcons began pulling away. Relying on an efficient running game and Matt Ryan's right arm, the Falcons built a 14-point lead in the second quarter before Saints kicker Wil Lutz uncorked a 57-yard field goal at the first-half buzzer to trim the deficit to 28-17.
The Falcons immediately stretched that lead out to 18 points with a touchdown to kick off the second half and they didn't look back. Though the Saints matched the Falcons' offensive output in the second half and cut into the lead, the defense -- stop me if you've heard this before -- failed to get the Falcons offense off the field. They couldn't buy a stop.
The Falcons put down the Saints early in the fourth quarter on a 90-yard interception return by New Orleans native Deion Jones. OK, onto the takeaways.
1. The Falcons offense explodes
It wasn't just Matt Ryan, who generated a 113.2 passer rating. It wasn't just the efficient running game, which averaged 7.0 yards per carry. It wasn't Julio Jones, who caught his first pass with roughly six minutes remaining in the third quarter. It was every aspect of the Falcons offense, which rolled Monday night.
The end result: 225 passing yards, 217 rushing yards, 38 offensive points, two crucial fourth-down conversions that led to touchdowns, and zero turnovers. Welcome to the Falcons, Kyle Shanahan. It might've taken you an entire season to actually arrive, but you were worth the wait.
After the Falcons punted on their opening drive, they refused to punt again until the fourth quarter. Take a look at their drive chart:
- Field goal
- End of game
The Falcons' two-headed running game ran all over the Saints. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman owned this game -- both on the ground and through the air. The Falcons' duo combined for 296 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage.
Freeman rushed for 152 yards, averaging 10.9 yards per carry. Even when Ryan threw his first touchdown, his pass went to Freeman.
Speaking of Freeman, let's watch this Beast Mode-esque stiff arm over and over again.
Coleman's individual plays weren't as memorable, but he reached the end zone on three different occasions. After he racked up his second score, the Saints defense gave up on even trying to tackle him.
This is the easiest hat-trick in the history of hat-tricks.
Like Coleman, Ryan didn't deliver many highlight-worthy plays. But like Coleman, Ryan had his way with the Saints, throwing for 240 yards and two touchdowns. With Jones hobbled with injuries, Ryan spread the ball all over the field, handing out free catches to his entire supporting cast.
Eight different players caught at least one pass from Ryan. Freeman led the way with five receptions for 55 yards. The actual leading wide receiver for the Falcons in terms of yards was Taylor Gabriel, who went for 33 yards. Again, Ryan threw for 240 yards, so nearly every pass-catcher played a role in getting Ryan to that mark.
Credit Ryan (and blame the Saints defense), but also credit the coaching staff. A Shanahan system hasn't looked this prolific since ... never? And Dan Quinn's decision to go for two fourth-and-shorts paid off.
2. How is the Saints' defense this bad?
OK, it's time to address the Saints' defense, which is dealing with injuries all over the place, but still shouldn't be this awful. How is it possible the Saints are still this bad defensively?
I can't remember the last time the Saints defense wasn't the worst thing on television.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) September 27, 2016
The Saints looked at this defense and decided to spend most of their cap room in free agency on a tight end.— Frank Schwab (@YahooSchwab) September 27, 2016
This Saints defense hurts my eyes.— Frank Schwab (@YahooSchwab) September 27, 2016
For those wondering, the Saints defense is horrific. Like even worse than last year probably.— Mike Kaye (@mike_e_kaye) September 27, 2016
90 minutes of debate and no firm plans from either candidate to fix the Saints defense.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) September 27, 2016
I won't go over the numbers again -- I already did that above from the Falcons' perspective -- so here's a play that sums up the Saints' incompetence:
Yep, that's a linebacker stationed in the middle of the field trying to sprint over to the sideline to catch up to Freeman. That will not work -- not on Monday night, not ever.
3. Drew Brees' mistake
Of the 45 points the Saints surrendered, the defense was responsible for only (that's a sarcastic only) 38 of them. The other seven came via an errant Drew Brees pass in the red zone.
This pick-six ended the game with nearly an entire quarter left to play:
Brees' overall numbers weren't bad, but they were inflated by nearly an entire quarter's worth of garbage time. So, here's what Brees' stat line looked like immediately after that interception (minus the garbage time inflation): 25 of 38 for 260 yards, two touchdowns, one pick, and a 92.0 passer rating.
Brees was fine, but fine is rarely going to be enough with this Saints' defense.
Flea-flickers are cool. So, the Saints decided to run a flea-flicker on the opening drive.
And it worked!
In addition to picking up 28 yards through the air, they tacked on another 9 yards for roughing the passer. And so, the Saints were off, cashing in with a short touchdown pass to Coby Fleener a few plays later.
The Saints' wackiness ended up hurting them too. After their defense shockingly forced a quick stop on the Falcons' first drive, their special teams did not do their part.
Let this be an example of how not to field a punt:
Coleman scored three plays later. And that's how the game got off to a quick 7-7 start.
The craziness never really ended. There was a ballsy and smart Falcons fourth-and-1 conversion due to a horse collar penalty in the final minute of first quarter, which eventually resulted in a Ryan-to-Freeman touchdown pass.
The second quarter involved a dumber than dumb (on the Falcons' part, not the officials') roughing the punter penalty, which allowed the Saints to tie up the game at 14 points apiece.
You get the point. This wasn't necessarily the best game in terms of quality. It was, however, the best game in terms of big plays, little-to-no defense, and so many points.
Like I said, exactly how it was advertised.
5. What's next
The Falcons host the Panthers next weekend. After that, they get the Broncos and Seahawks -- both of those games are on the road. So, they'll be tested and we'll eventually find out if this game was more about their offense or the Saints' defense.
Meanwhile, the Saints will look to notch their first win of the season against the Chargers in San Diego.