NEW ORLEANS – The Falcons' chances of repeating as NFC South champs ended with a 23-13 loss to the Saints on Sunday, but their playoff hopes are still very much alive.
Despite the loss to their NFC South rivals, Atlanta (9-6) can still clinch a playoff berth by beating the Panthers in the regular-season finale at Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Sunday. It's real simple for the Falcons: win and they're in.
Against New Orleans (11-4), the Falcons struggled on third down and in the red zone. Atlanta was 1 for 10 on third, 0 for 1 on fourth down and 0 for 3 in the red zone. That's a much different story than two weeks ago when Atlanta was 7 of 12 on third down against the Saints.
Twice the Falcons were at the 1-yard line and couldn't punch it in. The first was a fumble by Devonta Freeman on the 2 in the beginning of the third quarter. The latter was a fourth-and-goal play where Freeman was stopped for no gain in the early minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Falcons struggled to get the running game going, too. Devonta Freeman was limited to 36 yards on 11 carries while Tevin Coleman had just six runs for 12 yards.
Matt Ryan, who was sacked five times and picked off once, completed 22 of 36 for 288 yards and added a late touchdown pass in the fourth to Coleman. You can watch it below.
Julio Jones finished with a game-high seven catches for 149 yards, but was kept out of the end zone. He came close to scoring, but the officials ruled that the ball did not break the plane.
New Orleans rookie Alvin Kamara, who suffered a concussion on the Saints' first possession two weeks ago, made his presence known early and often in this rematch. Kamara had seven catches for 58 yards and ran it 12 times for 32 yards. Mark Ingram led the Saints on the ground with 44 yards on 13 carries.
Drew Brees didn't put up huge numbers against the Falcons defense, but was an efficient 21 of 28 for 239 yards.
Jones comes up big (again) vs. the Saints
There's something about the Saints that brings out the best in Deion Jones. In Week 14, Jones' interception in the end zone sealed the Falcons' 20-17 win. On Sunday, the Falcons' speedy linebacker picked off a deflected Drew Brees pass on the second play of the third quarter – returning it 41 yards down to the Saints 2-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, Freeman fumbled on second-and-goal and the ball was recovered by Saints linebacker Manti Te'o at the Saints' 4-yard line.
Once again, penalties a factor (early on)
When the Saints and Falcons met in Week 14, the Saints were penalized 11 times for 82 yards – and nine of those resulted in first downs for the Falcons. The flags were flying once again on Sunday, this time in Atlanta's direction. The Falcons were penalized six times for 59 yards in the first half. The Saints were not penalized until their first play from scrimmage in the third quarter.
By game's end, the Falcons were penalized 10 times for 91 yards. New Orleans was penalized three times for 30 yards.
What the loss means for the Falcons
In short, Sunday's loss means the Falcons are playing for the postseason lives next week against the visiting Panthers. Win and the Falcons are in the playoffs. Lose and they're likely done. They might be able to sneak into the postseason, but will need some help.
With the Bengals' victory against the Lions on Sunday, only the winner of the Cowboys-Seahawks game will remain alive for the final wild card spot in Week 17. If the winner of that game loses next weekend, the Falcons will clinch the No. 6 seed.
What is next for the Falcons
The Falcons return home for a key showdown against the Panthers on New Year's Eve. If they win, they're in the playoffs.
Recap Sunday's game with the in-game blog
We provided live updates and analysis during Sunday's game against the Saints as well as highlights, stats and additional insights. You can recap all the action below.