The New Orleans Saints controlled the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons fairly easily on their way to a 23-13 victory, and clinched their first playoff berth since 2013 along the way. Unfortunately, the bumbling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose own buffoonery stopped them from beating the Carolina Panthers, prevented the Saints from clinching the NFC South. New Orleans now must beat those same bumbling Bucs, or hope for a Carolina loss against Atlanta next week for their first division title since 2011.
The New Orleans offense made just enough plays at the right times for the win, but it was the Saints defense that ruled the day. They held Atlanta to under 4 yards per carry and just 67 yards rushing, sacked quarterback Matt Ryan 5 times, held strong on two goal line stands, and forced 2 turnovers, including a wild looking play made possible by the backside of cornerback Marshon Lattimore to set up a key touchdown late in the first half.
In the spirit of the holiday, we award Christmas presents to a few of the best performances in this huge Saints victory.
CHRISTMAS PRESENT #1 — Alvin Kamara
Kamara was forced to leave the first meeting against Atlanta after suffering a concussion on the first series of the game. His loss handcuffed the New Orleans offense, and many wondered if the Falcons defense would be able to keep pace with the rookie superstar. The answer to that was a resounding no, as Kamara proved on Sunday. His 25-yd. reception out of the slot on the Saints second offensive snap proved to be the key in their opening score, a Wil Lutz field goal. Kamara would lead the Saints in receptions and rushing yards in the first half, and would give the Falcons defense match up nightmares all afternoon, logging many snaps as an outside or slot receiver. He even gave the Saints a boost as kick returner, nearly returning the second half kickoff for a score, taking it 49 yards. This past week Kamara was voted to his first career Pro Bowl, joining teammate Mark Ingram as the first running back combo to do so in 42 years. The next honor going to this versatile weapon should be NFL Rookie of the Year.
CHRISTMAS PRESENT #2 — Manti Te'o
Te'o had an outstanding game against the Falcons. He showed excellent gap recognition all afternoon, rocketing through on numerous occasions to nail talented Atlanta backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman for losses or minimal gains. He combined with tackle David Onyemata to stop Freeman just short of the goal line in the 3rd quarter, then recovered a Freeman fumble forced by Tyeler Davison on the next play to end a Falcons threat. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded Te'o as the 3rd highest linebacker in action over the weekend.
CHRISTMAS PRESENT #3 — Sheldon Rankins and Tyeler Davison
Saints defensive linemen David Onyemata (a half sack), George Johnson (1.5 sacks), and Hau'oli Kikaha certainly deserve recognition for playing very well against the Falcons, but it was defensive linemen Rankins and Davison that stood out consistently all afternoon.
Rankins, the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft, earned an 80.2 grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) as a pass rusher, and graded out as PFF's 2nd highest run defender over the weekend. Rankins showed his tremendous athletic ability, getting outside on shorter routes to Atlanta receivers to assist on tackles. He provided good interior and edge rush all game, nearly downing Ryan for a safety late in the 4th quarter, then sacking the Falcons quarterback to end the game.
Davison ranked in the top 20 of PFF's front line defenders, and helped shut off interior rush lanes against the Atlanta running backs. He teamed with Rankins to stuff Devonta Freeman on a 3rd and short in the 1st quarter to end one drive. Davison then made one of the plays of the game early in the 3rd quarter, with Atlanta threatening to get back into the game near the Saints goal line. He got fast penetration into the Falcons backfield and plowed into Freeman, forcing the running back to fumble the ball away to the Saints, changing momentum back to the home team.
CHRISTMAS PRESENT #4 — Cam Jordan
Jordan has had the best season of his fine career, and dominated the Falcons offensive line Sunday afternoon. He crushed quarterback Matt Ryan on a second quarter sack to end one drive, then added another sack on a key 3rd & 3 play to end another Falcons drive in the 3rd quarter, and made life uncomfortable for the Atlanta quarterback all game. Jordan's 2 sacks raised his season total to 12, and should firmly be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
CHRISTMAS PRESENT #5 — Drew Brees
Brees completed a 12-yd. screen pass to Mark Ingram in the 1st quarter on Sunday, becoming the 3rd player in NFL history to surpass 70,000 passing yards. He completed 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards, including a game-changing 54-yd. touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. to end the first half. He completed a number of perfectly placed passes during the afternoon to keep drives alive, but it was a defensive play that he made that was as key as any offensive execution. After Kamara's big kickoff return to begin the second half, the Saints looked in position to increase their 13-0 lead, but instead Falcons linebacker and Saint-killer Deion Jones intercepted a pass that went through the hands of Ginn, and appeared on his way to a defensive touchdown. Brees got just enough of Jones inside the Saints 5-yd. line to impede his progress to the end zone, and he was tackled by Brandon Coleman. Two plays later, the New Orleans defense forced a fumble to keep Atlanta off the scoreboard altogether. Brees reached the 70,000 plateau faster than either of his predecessors, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, and appears to still have more than enough skill to lead his Saints deep into the 2017 playoffs.
Now it's on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where New Orleans will have a chance to clinch their first division title since 2011. Thank you to the Saints for giving their fans an early Christmas gift, and all of us at Canal Street Chronicles hope that all of you and your families had a very Merry Christmas.
Who had your top performance in the Saints victory over Atlanta?
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