The New Orleans Saints (10-1) tightened their grip on the NFC South by picking up their 10th straight win in a 31-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons (4-7) on Thanksgiving Night. Here’s what we learned from the game:
1. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore pointed out Tuesday in the locker room that the first game between these two teams was a long time ago. The message? This Saints defense isn’t the same unit that allowed 37 points to the Falcons in Week 2.
The Saints defense set the tone in the first half, limiting Atlanta’s ground game to 12 yards rushing on eight carries and making the Falcons one dimensional by jumping out to 17-3 halftime lead. The Saints totaled a season-high six sacks in a single game, garnered 13 quarterback hits, recovered three fumbles and notched an interception.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins led the defensive charge by recording his seventh sack of the season. He has a three-game streak with at least one sack. Saints free safety Marcus Williams arguably came up with the defensive play of the game when he recovered the fumble off his own strip-sack to turn back the Falcons deep in Saints territory.
In a modern NFL era where offenses shine, such as the Saints, the team in The Big Easy is showing they can play complementary football on both sides of the ball. The Saints have allowed 38 points over the past three games, an average of 12.6 per game, behind their defense and extended a winning streak to a league-best 10 games.
2. Saints quarterback Drew Brees showed for a second straight game he doesn’t have to rely heavily on wide receiver Michael Thomas in the passing game. Sure, Thomas is the clear No. 1 threat and he had his moments, including a circus catch between three defenders, but Brees made sure to get others involved.
With Brandon Marshall and rookie Tre’Quan Smith (foot) inactive, opportunities were there for second-year pro Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis, rookie Keith Kirkwood and tight end Dan Arnold. Carr recorded a touchdown, his second in as many weeks; Lewis, fresh off injured receiver, hauled in a 28-yard score; and Arnold, whom the Saints converted from wide receiver to tight end during the offseason, came up with a highlight reel-worthy, diving 25-yard grab; and Kirkwood snagged a 5-yard touchdown.
Know what really makes their productions unique? All four entered the league as undrafted free agents.
3. For all the attention from a wild game between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11, make no mistake the Saints are hands down the best team in the league and they don’t need to do it with explosive production every week.
Against the Falcons, Brees threw for a modest 174 yards to go along with four touchdowns, and threw to eight different players. The running game gashed the Falcons with 150 yards on 31 carries. Second-year running back Alvin Kamara paced the attack on the ground with 89 yards on 14 attempts, while Mark Ingram chipped in with 48 yards rushing.
And as pointed out earlier, the defense played exceptionally. When the Saints are firing on all cylinders like they were Thursday night, this is an extremely tough team to beat.
4. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed 35 of 45 passes for 377 yards, a touchdown and interception, and the Falcons actually ran more offensive plays than the Saints (69-55) and won the time of possession (30:59-29:01).
Mistakes, however, contributed to a dismal loss to a bitter divisional rival and dropped the Falcons to 4-7 on the season.
5. It’s hard to believe when looking at the offensive talent on the Falcons‘ roster that this is a 4-7 team, but that’s the reality. Injuries have decimated the defensive side, but the offense, which has been without running back Devonta Freeman, continues to struggle.
The Falcons have lost three straight games and failed to top 20 points during that span, averaging 17.3. While coach Dan Quinn shouldn’t be on the hot seat given the impact of injuries on defense, the same can’t be said for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who continues to struggle to get the most out of one of the league’s more talented rosters.