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Bair: Desmond Ridder came up clutch to beat Saints, but Falcons need more QB consistency, fewer critical mistakes to win NFC South

Second-year pro threw for 168 passing yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in his return to starting lineup.

ATLANTA – As soon as Desmond Ridder received the snap, he felt a blitzer coming in hot. Saints linebacker Pete Werner was bearing down quickly, but his presence didn't faze the Falcons quarterback.

Ridder knew exactly where the football was going. He had Falcons running back Bijan Robinson in a 1-on-1 matchup with Saints linebacker Demario Davis. All Ridder had to do what get the ball to Robinson.

"At that point, it was just backyard ball," Ridder said. "I threw it off the back of my foot and gave him a ball he could go get. I trusted him."

They had repped the play before but got zone coverage that muddied the waters and prompted Ridder to scramble. It was man coverage this time, and Ridder had faith that Robinson would win.

Ridder dropped an absolute dime over the top, hitting Robinson in stride for a 26-yard touchdown. It was a thing of beauty that was essential to Sunday's 24-15 victory over the rival Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

It was the best play of Ridder's return to the starting lineup, following two-plus games operating as Taylor Heinicke's backup. It put an exclamation point on Ridder's best drive, when he was 4-for-4 for 73 of his 168 passing yards.

Ridder didn't operate on that level prior to the defining drive. He was 9-for-17 for 95 passing yards and two interceptions before that. While he was impactful with his legs, that's not the type of quarterback play required to win games.

Ridder said he maintained a next-play mentality even after his miscues. As he put it, "good, bad or ugly, you've got to move on."

He was able to do that and overcome the critical mistakes that continue to plague him this season.

"He doesn't flinch," head coach Arthur Smith said. "Obviously, you don't want the turnovers. … But he's resilient, and we'll keep working."

Ridder had to be after a red-zone interception that was due in part to a miscommunication with Robinson, though the quarterback said he had to deliver a better ball. Smith said Ridder "got a little greedy" on an interception snatched by Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu. Neither pick was costly, however, with one coming just before the half and the Saints fumbling away an opportunity to turn the other into points.

Buoyed by a solid defensive performance and a hard-charging run game that averaged 5.6 yards per carry, Ridder was able to make big plays at key junctures to help the Falcons come out on top.

"Desmond always bounces back," Robinson said. "When something bad happens, it never gets to him. He's always trying to look for the next play. He's always trying to look for the next drive to be a successful drive. That's what I respect about Desmond. Things can go wrong in the game, but he's trying to come back, he's trying to improve. That's what is going to make him a great quarterback one day. When something bad happens, just try to get away from it and go out there and improve the next drive."

Ridder will need to improve overall for the Falcons to go on the run required to win the NFC South. That's Atlanta's primary goal. The Falcons are in prime position to reach it, currently sitting atop the standings at 5-6 and an unblemished 3-0 record in the division.

I still think it'll take an above-.500 record to win the title, meaning the Falcons will have to go 4-2 over the final six games to get there. While the Falcons were able to overcome critical mistakes in an absolutely-gottta-have-it game, it's difficult to imagine that continuing to happen often enough down the stretch.

Simply put: The Falcons need more consistent quarterback play from Ridder, who was named the starter after losing that title to Heinicke in Week 9. Ridder spent his weeks as a reserve in reflection, focusing on how he could perform, prepare and lead better if he got the opportunity to be QB1 again.

We saw him make some solid plays when it mattered, with his arm and his legs. We also saw some issues that plagued him earlier in the year, most notably with passing efficiency and turnovers. While those subpar moments remain cause for concern, his moxie and performance under extreme pressure provide optimism he can take the Falcons where they want to go.

While Smith is focused on team wins – Sunday was certainly one – quarterback is the most important position. The Falcons need more efficiency from it. Ridder would probably agree with that.

But the Falcons have unwavering faith that Ridder will come through in the clutch.

"You've got believe in him when you put him out there, and that's what he's done," Smith said. "His history will show you that. Just throughout all the games he played in college, like he's pretty damn good in critical situations in the fourth quarter. He's done that in the NFL. Like I said, we've got to keep working. We've got a lot of belief, and more importantly, those guys have belief."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints during Week 12.

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