Atlanta – The New Orleans Saints were a couple of scratchy minutes away from a clean getaway.
The Saints are 10-2 and winners of nine straight after a 21-16 victory over the Falcons (4-8) on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And they were less than a quarter away from a second domination of Atlanta in three games, following a 24-9 victory in Atlanta. But a little bit of shakiness made a two-score game a one-score game before New Orleans was able to hold on and bat down a pass in the end zone as time expired.
Still, the bottom line is that they got it done, clinched a playoff berth, moved a step closer to their fourth straight NFC South Division title, and maintained the lead for capturing the No. 1 playoff seed.
Not a bad day's work at all.
OFFENSE: If not for a couple of really shaky plays – one lost fumble by quarterback Taysom Hill, and a second Hill fumble that fortuitously rolled out of bounds – it would have been almost impossible to debate much of anything that happened for the Saints' offense. The balance (217 net passing yards, 207 rushing yards, two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown) was what any team would want. New Orleans was 8 of 17 on third down – several of them pinpoint completions by Hill – and 2 for 3 on fourth down, while scoring touchdowns on three of five red-zone possessions and hoarding possession for 36:54. If was an exhibition on how to grind down an opponent. But the lost fumble – leading 21-9, second-and-goal from Atlanta's 5-yard line with just over 11 minutes left – turned into at least a 10-point swing when the Falcons scored a touchdown after the recovery. Coach Sean Payton admitted he wanted back that play call (a Hill pass attempt). He and Hill will have future opportunities to avoid that kind of error.
DEFENSE: We're at a point where allowing 16 points is kind of a big deal against the Saints' defense. The unit has been that dominating lately, having entering Sunday allowing just an average of eight points in the previous four games. The Falcons' fourth-quarter touchdown was the second touchdown New Orleans has allowed in five games, and the fact that Atlanta was held to 1 of 4 in the red zone was significant. The Saints gave up just 332 yards (almost 50 above their league-leading average of 284.9 entering the game) but the 16 points didn't reach the 20.5 per game they were allowing. And on Atlanta's final two drives, with the Falcons looking to score the lead-taking touchdown, New Orleans came away with two stops in the end zone. It's hard to imagine that a defense is playing better at the moment, and that's even after committing a slew of penalties Sunday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: When Wil Lutz misses a field goal – a 40-yarder at that – it's newsworthy. When it appears he may have injured himself in the process, it's bigger news. That may have been a factor in the Saints going for it on fourth-and-7 from the Falcons' 36-yard line in the second quarter. But New Orleans weathered the miss, and otherwise was solid in the kicking game. Three of Thomas Morstead's five punts were downed inside the 20, and Tommylee Lewis wasn't spectacular as a punt returner, but he was reliable. And that was good to see.