NEW ORLEANS – The Falcons managed to move the ball better against the Saints than their 17-point total would suggest, but therein lies the problem.
Points are what matter in the NFL, not yards. The Falcons gained 366 yards on offense against the Saints, close to their season average of 403 yards, but they scored nearly 10 fewer points than they were averaging entering Thursday night.
So what prevented the Falcons from scoring points? The answer in this game is simple: Turnovers.
"We had opportunities to come away with a lot more points than we did tonight but when you give them the football, especially in the low red [zone], where you have opportunities to come away with points it's tough to overcome," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.
The Falcons had four turnovers on Thursday night and three of them almost certainly took points off the board.
Atlanta reached the Saints' 3-yard line on its opening possession, poised to come away with at least a field goal. On third down, however, Marcus Williams crashed through the line and stripped the football from Ryan. The Saints recovered the fumble and the Falcons came away with no points.
Trailing 17-3, the Falcons had an opportunity to cut into the Saints' lead with their final possession before halftime. Atlanta began the drive at its own 25-yard line but quickly moved the ball downfield thanks to some quick passes from Ryan.
The Falcons looked again set to come away with at least a field goal and in position to take a shot or two at the end zone when Ryan connected with Julio Jones on a shallow crosser on a first-down pass from the 32-yard line. Jones gained 15 yards on the reception, but he had the ball jarred loose as he was knocked around like a helicopter propeller on the tackle.
Instead of building some momentum and chipping away at the Saints' lead heading into halftime, the Falcons missed another opportunity to put points on the board.
Atlanta's third turnover of the game, a tipped Ryan pass that landed softly in the hands of Saints linebacker A.J. Klein, set the Saints up at the Falcons' 22-yard line. Five plays later, New Orleans scored a touchdown and built a 31-10 lead.
On the ensuing possession the Falcons missed yet another opportunity to score due to a turnover. Atlanta strung together a long drive that included a converted fourth down and looked to have a touchdown on its second fourth-down play of the drive.
Ryan hit Calvin Ridley in stride down the middle of the field, and Ridley appeared destined to get the ball across the goal line. Just as he was leaping for the end zone, however, Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore dove at Ridley and knocked the ball loose at the 2-yard line.
"I thought we did some good things offensively, but when you turn the football over four times against a really good football team that's playing with a lot of momentum, it's just too much to overcome," Ryan said. "We need to be better than that as we move forward."
Best-case scenario: The Falcons score a touchdown on all three of the plays where the ball hit the turf on Thursday night. That would have resulted in 21 extra points, bringing Atlanta's total up to 38 points. If Ryan's pass isn't picked off at the Falcons' 22-yard line, giving the Saints a short field and an easier touchdown, the Saints might have been held below 30 points.
Yes, that's a lot of what-ifs and re-writing history. The bottom line is that the Saints won. But it's clear the Falcons didn't do themselves any favors and potentially took a lot of points off the board because of turnovers.
"When you have one [red-zone turnover] it feels like a lot," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "And so to have three down there, I thought that was the real story of the game."
The Falcons face the Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana this Thanksgiving. Get your inside look here.