PLAYER OF THE GAME: Cool and confident when it mattered most, quarterback Matt Ryan was on point in the biggest game of the year. Ryan finished with gaudy stats that were only overshadowed by a big defensive effort, going 30-of-40 for 322 yards and one touchdown with a passer rating of 106.5. Ryan's easy-going demeanor under pressure, as we've seen so many times before, however, cannot be quantified in the stat book.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Up 20-7, safety Kemal Ishmael came up with the play of the day. The Saints on the Falcons' 14-yard line dialed up the Brees-to-Graham connection and succeeded as tight end Jimmy Graham caught the ball short of the goal line and was met by Ishmael and rookie safety Dezmen Southward. While Graham was fighting to get the ball over the goal line, Ishmael was working on separating the ball from the Pro Bowler.
It worked, and Ishmael scooped it up and took off for an 18-yard return. The Saints were dumbfounded as they believed Graham had crossed the plane of the goal line for the touchdown, but the ruling on the field was a fumble. The officials took a long look at the replay and determined that Graham did, indeed, fumble the ball before it crossed the goal line.
"I knew I got it out. I knew it was a clean out, but I didn't know if he crossed the plane," Ishmael said. "We did a good job of holding him up and not giving up. Like Coach (Mike Smith) said this week: Play with no regrets, do whatever it takes to win, and that's exactly what we did."
TURNING POINT: The Saints had a chance to claw back into the lead late, down by only six points. The Falcons had the ball with 5:48 left, but their drive stalled after five plays. Brees took back over at the Saints' 10 with intentions of orchestrating a comeback. Cornerback Robert McClain had different ideas. On the second play of the drive, McClain stepped in front of a pass and picked it off, setting the Falcons' offense up for a Matt Bryant field goal that would put the game out of reach.
INJURY ROUNDUP: Worrilow left the game with what appeared to be an arm injury. He left the game at the end of the first half but returned to the field to start the third quarter. … RB Steven Jackson left the game late in the second quarter with a quad injury. At the two-minute warning, he was taken to the locker room. At the start of the second half, it was announced that Jackson would not return to the game. … Safety William Moore left the game in the third quarter, appearing to clutch his shoulder. He was immediately taken to the locker room and did not return. … Shortly after Moore's injury, CB Josh Wilson left with a hamstring injury and his return was questionable. … On the next play, Dwight Lowery went down with a shoulder injury. His return was questionable, but he re-entered the game in the fourth quarter.
YOUNGSTERS GROWING UP: Three rookies not named Jake Matthews stood out in a big way Sunday. Second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman had perhaps the biggest task of facing off with Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans, who was making his 141st NFL start Sunday. Hageman was a fixture in the Saints' backfield when he was on the field in the defensive line rotation. He finished with three tackles, one for loss, a sack and one QB hurry.
"That's my job," Hageman said after the game. "I've got to approach every game like it's my last. I feel like today was a success. We had a great game plan coming into this and we just executed on all cylinders. I definitely did my job and everybody else did their job. Hopefully, everybody finishes strong."
Running back and fourth-rounder Devonta Freeman got some extra reps Sunday due to Jackson exiting the game with an injury. Freeman scored the first rushing touchdown of his NFL career, a 31-yard scamper to put the Falcons up 20-7. He led the team in rushing with five carries for 36 yards.
Safety and third-round pick Southward was instrumental in the game's biggest play by helping Ishmael keep Jimmy Graham from crossing the goal line. Later in the game, with both Moore and Lowery out with injuries, Southward was pressed into full defensive duties and handled the job well.
DEFENSIVE SLUGFEST: Who would have thought the bottom two defenses in the NFL would have put together the defensive thriller that was Sunday's game? With two top-10 offenses on the field, everything was lined up to be a shootout, but the Falcons' defense, in particular, stepped up.
The unit forced three fumbles, recovered two, and picked off Brees twice. The Falcons' defense also recorded five sacks, good enough for a season-high.
"Any negative comments about the defense, I ignore," McClain said. "We're all we need to believe in what we need to do out there on the field. At the end of the game, we want to win and that's the main accomplishment for us and that's the main goal for us. Whatever they say about our defense, they say. We're out there working every day in practice. We're all just trying to get better and win games, so they can say whatever they want but we're going to believe in what we have in this locker room."
The secondary, in particular, was crucial to Sunday's win. Finally whole again after getting William Moore back after his second injury of the season, the unit looked confident, and McClain said afterward that Moore's presence was a big part of that. Moore, however, left with a shoulder injury — and it began a nasty trend as Wilson and Lowery both went out with injuries of their own.
Eight different Falcons saw time on defense in the secondary Sunday, young and old alike. Combined, they accounted for 28 of the game's 42 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
"This week, everything came together for us," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who scooped up a fumble forced by Kroy Biermann and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown as the clock ran out. "The secondary did a ridiculous job. I've never seen a secondary play like that against Drew Brees. They held him in check."