Offense Explodes Out of the Gate: The Falcons didn't waste any of their opportunities in the first half. They received five possessions in the opening 30 minutes, and, thanks to a slew of explosive plays, scored a touchdown on each of them. Atlanta is the first NFL team to accomplish that feat since the 2014 Rams, and it's the only club in the Super Bowl era to notch a TD on its opening drive for six straight games, according to the Fox television broadcast.
"For us, I thought offensively we did about as well as we could do in the first half," Matt Ryan said. "In terms of the result, but there were even a few things we could clean up in terms of penalties, etc., where we could get a little bit better, some things that we could control. But I thought the effort, I thought the intent, the mindset, it's exactly what you want for your team, and I was proud of the way our guys started the game."
Freeman Sets It Off: Devonta Freeman was a big reason why Atlanta enjoyed so much offensive success. The third-year running back caught two passes for 48 yards on the first drive, helping set up a Matt Ryan TD pass. Then, right after the Saints answered with a field goal, Freeman bolted for a 75-yard TD run to give the Falcons a two-possession lead. On that play he surpassed 1,000 rushing yards on the season, making him the sixth Falcon to do so and the first since Michael Turner in 2010-11.
Freeman ended the game with 177 yards on 17 touches (a 10.4 average) and 1,541 yards on the year – 1,079 of which came on the ground.
"He hit the hole really hard. I think he made somebody miss, and he had the speed to just take it away," Mack said about Freeman's long score.
Ryan Strengthens MVP Case: Matt Ryan wrapped up the best regular season of his NFL career with one of his most efficient performances in a Falcons uniform. The nine-year veteran completed 27 of 36 passes for 331 yards and four touchdowns to four different receivers, and as he authored those stellar numbers, the Georgia Dome crowd of more than 70,000 fans regularly lauded him with "M-V-P" chants.
Ryan finished the campaign with 4,947 passing yards and 38 touchdowns – both single-season franchise records – and joined Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady as the only players in league history to amass 35-plus TDs and 10 or fewer INTs in a season.
"I thought Matt played particularly well today," head coach Dan Quinn said. "Created some (plays), moved in the pocket and just threw some balls that were right on point. … The thing I'd like to share with you is the work that he put in this offseason. And he made that decision from last January where we got together and had many conversations. When we apply the term, 'Can you get one percent better?' to already a really good player, sometimes the ceilings to go through to get to the next level can be really challenging. He totally did that.
"He's the one that put the work in, that spent the extra time, that set our offseason in motion. I think that speaks for itself in terms of how hard he's gone for it. And he has not backed off since. He's been able to stay on that pace, stay on that routine of constantly striving to get better. So I feel his intent; I feel (it) in the way he prepares, the way he's going at it. He's in a very good groove right now."
Beasley Comes Back Strong: Vic Beasley Jr. day got off to a rough start when he went down with an injured shoulder in the first quarter and eventually returned to the locker room. He didn't stay out long, though, and soon after he returned to action, the 2015 first-round pick notched his 15.5th sack of 2016 – the most in the NFL heading into Sunday night's regular-season finale.
"I knew when he went inside, and he came back out I saw him and said, 'Hey man, we appreciate your toughness. Ready to go battle again?' And I asked him if he needed me to hit his shoulder, and he said, 'No, no, no.' So, we joked about it, but honestly, that shows how hard he wants to play for his guys," Quinn said. "That's one of the coolest parts about our team. This brotherhood that they have is real."
Defense Passes Biggest Test of Year: While the Falcons have secured the reputation as the best offense in football, an argument can be made that the Saints had the second-best in 2016. And while New Orleans made a valiant push towards the end of regulation, Atlanta's defense did an admirable job slowing down Drew Brees and Co. through three quarters – allowing 218 net yards and 13 points through 45 minutes of action.
The Saints managed to tighten the contest in the fourth, however, adding 19 points in that frame. Now, as Atlanta moves on to the playoffs, its defense will look to build on its early success in Week 17.
"For the most part, I think we played well," veteran DT Jonathan Babineaux said. "Drew Brees and Sean Payton are always having a high-powered offense that always scores a lot of points. So it's not easy to keep them to a certain amount of points. They're very explosive just like our offense is, and we knew we had our hands full. We started off very good, third quarter was good and in the fourth quarter we kind of tapered off a little bit, but we were able to come out victorious."