Falcons enjoy major turnaround, Saints end with a thud
ATLANTA (AP) Few thought the Atlanta Falcons would be the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed when they lost the season opener.
Quarterback Matt Ryan remained confident.
The Falcons dropped seven of their last nine games in 2015. When they fell at home to Tampa Bay in Week 1 this year, it seemed the franchise was headed for more disappointment.
Instead, a 38-32 victory Sunday over New Orleans has Atlanta (11-5) on a four-game winning streak headed into the postseason. The Falcons are off this week and will get some needed rest with several players recovering from injuries.
''That's what you work hard for in the offseason,'' Ryan said. ''When you're training all those days, it's to give yourselves opportunities at this time of the year. I'm proud of the way our guys responded and handled that all year.''
The Saints finished a third straight 7-9 season.
Coach Sean Payton's name is being speculated with the Los Angeles Rams' vacancy. Drew Brees established an NFL record with his fifth season of at least 5,000 yards passing. He set another single-season league high with 471 completions, but the numbers felt empty.
New Orleans didn't place one player on the Pro Bowl roster while the Falcons had six. That Super Bowl title the Saints won to end the 2009 season seems light years away, though Brees disagrees.
''Just like '07 and '08 prepared us for the '09 season, I feel like '14, '15 and '16 are preparing us for what's in store next year,'' Brees said. ''I believe that's great things.''
Payton refused to answer questions about his future with the team. He will spend Monday doing the customary exit interviews with players.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
The score was close, but the outcome was decided in the first half. Atlanta scored touchdowns on all five of its possessions, led 35-13 at halftime and showed why it has the league's most prolific offense.
New Orleans pulled within 13 with 2:47 remaining, but any chance it had to win was all but done when Jalen Collins intercepted Brees with 6:58 left and Atlanta leading by 19.
KUDOS TO THE LINE
All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, who caught seven passes for 96 yards and one touchdown, heaped credit on the Falcons' revamped offensive line, anchored by Alex Mack, the NFL's highest-paid center.
The Falcons signed Mack in March and are delighted they did. His leadership and skill set gave Ryan the time he needed this year to set his feet and make accurate throws. Jones benefited, too.
''Matt's always been able to make those plays,'' Jones told The Associated Press. ''I'm not taking anything away from us because we've been doing a great job. We're going to play for each other, but the offensive line has done a heck of a job for us.''
Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal, the league's 17th overall draft pick, left the game late in the fourth quarter with concussion symptoms.
It's a good thing the Falcons have a bye this week to give Neal more time to recover. He is their leader in the secondary with cornerback Desmond Trufant out for the season with a shoulder injury.
Cornerback Robert Alford left late in the fourth with a sore knee. Outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who began the day as the NFL sacks leader with 14.5, had to go to the sideline in the first quarter with a shoulder injury, but he returned in the second.
THESE GUYS ARE GOOD
Sunday marked the third straight game that Atlanta running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for over 200 yards from scrimmage.
The combo was at its best on the opening drive with Freeman catching two screen passes for 48 combined yards and Coleman catching a screen that resulted in a 7-yard TD.
''Their explosiveness, their unselfishness, their mindset to do whatever it takes to win - guys appreciate that,'' Ryan said. ''They feel that in the locker room, that they're putting the team first. I think they've set a great example for the rest of us.''
DOME WINDING DOWN
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opens next year, will be ready to host his MLS team this summer.
The Georgia Dome will be imploded.
''It's been an exciting 15 years (as owner) at the Georgia World Congress Center has been a great partner,'' Blank said. ''The Georgia Dome has been a great place to play ball, and we've got more games coming up this season.''
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