Falcons beat Saints, join them in first place in NFC South at 5-6

AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III celebrates after returning an interception 92 yards for a touchdown during Sunday's home win against the New Orleans Saints.
AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III celebrates after returning an interception 92 yards for a touchdown during Sunday's home win against the New Orleans Saints.

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons, looking to snap a three-game losing streak and remain in contention for a spot in the NFL playoffs, weren't going to be picky about how they won a game.

"However it came, good, bad or ugly, go out and get a win," quarterback Desmond Ridder said.

The Falcons checked all those boxes Sunday afternoon, when Ridder overcame two interceptions by throwing a touchdown pass to rookie running back Bijan Robinson in the fourth quarter as Atlanta beat the rival New Orleans Saints 24-15 — a result that has those two teams tied for first place in the woeful NFC South Division.

Atlanta (5-6) and New Orleans (5-6) were both coming off open dates as they faced off for the 109th time, including the lone postseason meeting that was won by the Falcons in 1991. Atlanta nudged ahead 55-54 in all-time matchups and, more importantly, took the first meeting this season.

The Saints, who have now lost two games in a row and four of their past six this season, were limited by injuries at receiver after losing Chris Olave (concussion) and Rashid Shaheed (thigh) during the game, which came days after Michael Thomas (knee) was placed on injured reserve. New Orleans still outgained the Falcons 444-396 in offensive yards as Derek Carr passed for 304, but the Saints had to settle for five field goals by Blake Grupe, who missed his sixth attempt when a 54-yarder in the final minute was short.

The Falcons rushed for 228 yards. Robinson ran for 91 yards on 16 carries, including a 10-yard touchdown, but shared the load in the ground game with Tyler Allgeier (10 carries for 64 yards), Cordarrelle Patterson (eight for 43) and Ridder (seven for 30).

"They did a good job of blocking us up front," Saints coach Dennis Allen said. "We will look at schematically what we can do to be better there. That was a big factor, them winning the line of scrimmage."

The effective ground attack helped Atlanta control the clock late in the game and end the Saints' comeback hopes.

"That was encouraging," Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. "That's where we need to be to close out games."

Smith, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator in his third season as Atlanta's head coach, said the Falcons' six remaining games "will feel like six lifetimes" in the league's only division where no team has a winning record. Atlanta hasn't made the playoffs since the 2017 season, but that hope remains despite a losing record with the two-thirds of the regular season already gone.

Although the Falcons and Saints are both in first place, Atlanta now has a head-to-head win and is 3-0 in division play while New Orleans is 1-2. The Falcons also have NFC South wins against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7, 1-1) and the Carolina Panthers (1-10, 0-2).

In addition, just one of Atlanta's six remaining opponents currently has a winning record. The Falcons will visit the New York Jets (4-7) next Sunday, host the Bucs on Dec. 10, travel to Carolina the following week — the date for that game hasn't been set due to NFL flex scheduling — welcome the Indianapolis Colts (6-5) on Dec. 24, then close the schedule with back-to-back road games against the Chicago Bears (3-8) on Dec. 31 and the Saints on Jan. 7.

Winning this week was the first step for Atlanta, which ended a three-game skid in which the losses were by a combined 10 points.

The Falcons led 14-12 before Ridder lofted the 26-yard touchdown pass to Robinson with a little less than 10 minutes left in the game. Robinson ran out of the end zone and into the tunnel.

"I really don't know what I was doing," he said. "I just kept running, trying not to slip."

  photo  AP photo by John Bazemore / New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo, left, forces Atlanta Falcons receiver Drake London out of bounds during the second half of Sunday's matchup of NFC South Division rivals at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
 
 

Grupe's first field goal, a 25-yarder gave New Orleans a 3-0 lead halfway through the first quarter before Atlanta safety Jessie Bates III stepped in front of a pass intended for Shaheed and returned the interception 92 yards for a touchdown at the 1:46 mark. It was Atlanta's first pick-six of the season.

"He was playing single high (coverage) and he left his responsibility," Carr said of Bates. "You don't expect him to do that. For that route, that should have been a good decision. He made a great play."

Bates produced another big play late in the third quarter, when his hit on Taysom Hill forced a fumble that was recovered by Falcons defensive lineman Albert Huggins at the Atlanta 5-yard line. The turnover came after Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu's second interception of the game.

The Falcons were trying to increase their 14-9 lead late in the first half when Ridder's high pass for Robinson was picked off by Mathieu at the New Orleans 1.

Ridder's interceptions were disappointing in his return as a starter after playing behind veteran Taylor Heinicke the past two games. Ridder, a second-year pro who improved to 7-6 as an NFL starter, completed 13 of 21 passes for 168 yards with one touchdown and the two picks.

"What you like about him is the way he came back," Smith said. "He doesn't flinch. He's resilient, and we'll keep working."

Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone moved up to the coaches' booth instead of working the game from the sideline in a change discussed while the team was off last week. Smith said he believed Ragone "could help (Ridder) with what he sees up top. I thought it worked well today."

Drake London was targeted seven times by Ridder and had five catches for 91 yards. Robinson had three catches (on six targets for 32 yards, and the only other Atlanta player with multiple catches was tight end Kyle Pitts (two for 22 yards).

Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews started for the 155th consecutive game, setting a team record with the NFL's longest active streak. Former quarterback Matt Ryan started 154 consecutive games from 2009-19.

The Saints' offensive frustrations continued in the third quarter, when they moved 65 yards on 14 plays before Falcons linebacker Arnold Ebiketie sacked Carr on third down. That set up Grupe's fourth field goal, a 45-yarder, to cut Atlanta's lead to 14-12.

Grupe's fifth field goal, a 39-yarder, trimmed Atlanta's lead to 21-15. The Falcons answered by holding the ball for almost five minutes before Younhoe Koo's 39-yard field goal extended the lead to nine points.

Grupe also made a 52-yard field goal early in the second quarter.

The Saints' Olave had team highs with seven catches (on nine targets) and 114 receiving yards before leaving in the third quarter, while Shaheed was escorted to the locker room late in the second quarter and finished with two catches (on five targets) for nine yards.

"At the end of the day, we always say, 'Nobody cares.' We care about their injuries, of course," Carr said. "It is a little frustrating, but nobody cares. At the end, guys came in and did their best and made some plays for us. They gave us a chance."

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