The Atlanta Falcons dropped a heartbreaker to the New Orleans Saints in their 2015 season finale, losing on a last-second field goal by a score of 20-17. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw an untimely interception with less than two minutes remaining in the game, the team’s second fourth-quarter turnover, which set up the Saints to wind down the clock and allow kicker Kai Forbath to hit the game-winning 30-yard kick. The Falcons finish their first season under head coach Dan Quinn with an 8-8 record, disappointing after a 5-0 start.
Ryan began relatively impressively before his late-game interception, finishing the game with 334 passing yards and two touchdowns while completing 24 of 36 passes. The veteran quarterback overshot a number of early throws down the field, but his accuracy downfield improved as the game wore on. His interception was the result of throwing late over the middle to running back Devonta Freeman on a check down.
Freeman led the team with 81 rushing yards on 24 carries. He also added a pair of receptions for 18 yards with one for a score. Backup Terron Ward had a single carry for 11 yards.
Julio Jones led receivers with nine catches for 149 yards. His totals allowed him to finish the season atop the league rankings with 1,871 receiving yards, the second-highest mark behind Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 yards in NFL history. Jones also finished tied with Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown for the league lead with 136 catches, which also ranks second all-time behind Marvin Harrison’s 143-catch record.
Jacob Tamme and Justin Hardy each added four receptions for 61 and 34 yards, respectively. Tight end Tony Moeaki had Ryan’s other touchdown reception on a 42-yard play, finishing the game with a pair of receptions for 47 yards.
Kicker Shayne Graham made one of his two field-goal tries, connecting on a 51-yarder before having a 45-yard kick blocked. Matt Bosher punted twice for an average of 37 yards, with both kicks landing inside the 20-yard line. Devin Hester returned three kickoffs for 73 yards and had fair caught both punts he received.
The Falcons offense finished with 419 total yards, their third highest total of the season. Yet a pair of turnovers, missed field goal and an untimely personal foul penalty on left guard Andy Levitre helped to ruin scoring opportunities despite their ability to move the ball downfield against the Saints. The Falcons converted half of their 12 third-down attempts and converted one of two trips into the red zone into touchdowns.
Defensively, the Falcons allowed 390 yards to the Saints, who also converted six of 10 third-down attempts. The Saints weren’t anymore efficient in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just two of their five trips. The Falcons struggled to generate any pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees, hitting him just once and sacking him not once, as his 323 passing yards was the third highest allowed by the Falcons this year.
Linebacker Paul Worrilow led the Falcons with eight tackles and also was credited with a pass breakup. Robert Alford (seven tackles, one pass breakup, one fumble recovery), Jonathan Babineaux (two tackles for loss), Adrian Clayborn (one tackle, one quarterback hit), Justin Durant (five tackles), Charles Godfrey (six tackles, one pass breakup, one forced fumble), Kemal Ishmael (six tackles, one pass breakup), Brooks Reed (three tackles, one tackle for loss), O’Brien Schofield (four tackles) and Desmond Trufant (three tackles) had notable performances.
The Falcons won the opening toss, but deferred to the second half. The Saints subsequently received the opening kickoff and on their first play from scrimmage, handed it off to running back Tim Hightower, who gained three yards on a run up the middle. The Saints were able to convert on second down thanks to a check down to fellow running back Travaris Cadet that went for nine yards. Brees’ next pass was an attempt back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Brandon Coleman, but Alford was in tight coverage and the ball was thrown out-of-bounds. Hightower’s next run up the middle was stuffed by Ra’Shede Hageman and Kroy Biermann after nose tackle Joey Mbu created good push up front. Then on 3rd-and-8, Brees’ check down to wideout Brandin Cooks was swarmed by Worrilow for a five-yard gain and the Saints punted.
The Falcons’ first play from scrimmage was a completed pass from Ryan to tight end Levine Toilolo over the middle for eight yards. Freeman then got the carry on the next three runs, gaining a combined 18 yards and converted a pair of first downs. The Falcons then gave it to Ward, who was able to beat the pursuit to the edge before turning it upfield for an 11-yard gain along the sideline. Ryan’s next pass was a shot to Jones on a deep post, but the quarterback overthrew the receiver. Freeman’s next run was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro for a gain of no yards, bringing about a 3rd-and-10. Ryan found an open Tamme over the middle, who tripped over a Saints defense, but managed to snag an excellent one-handed grab on a throw behind him for a gain of 12 yards. With the Falcons now in Saints territory, they went back to Freeman for the next two plays as the Falcons runner gained a combined seven yards to set up a 3rd-and-3. Ryan tried to float a wheel route down the sideline to Tamme, but once again was a little too long on the throw and it fell incomplete. The Falcons settled for a 51-yard field goal from Graham to become the first team on the board with a 3-0 lead with 6:43 left in the first quarter after a 12-play, 56-yard scoring drive.
Cadet was able to take the ensuing kickoff 37 yards out of the end zone to give the Saints favorable starting field position at their 30-yard line to start the next series. Cadet then gained six yards on first down up the middle before beating Durant on a slant for a big gain after the catch, gaining 36 yards to quickly flip field position and put the Saints at the Falcons 28-yard line. Cadet’s next run was bottled up behind the line of scrimmage by Babineaux for a loss of one yard. Tight end Ben Watson was then able to beat Godfrey as Brees lofted a throw down the seam for a 22-yard gain, setting up the Saints at the Falcons seven-yard line. Two plays later Ishmael had tight coverage on a throwback pass to tight end Josh Hill, but Brees missed his receiver. Then on 3rd-and-goal from the four-yard line, Vic Beasley was able to beat a blocker and pressure Brees, batting the pass down in the process. However the Falcons rookie defensive end was flagged for roughing the passer due to a blow to the head, gifting the Saints a new set of downs at the two-yard line. Hightower ran it in on the next play, but a holding call on right tackle Zach Strief against a penetrating Worrilow nullified the score, pushing the Saints back 10 yards. Hightower then ran up the middle, meeting safety Ricardo Allen and powering through his tackle for an 11-yard gain to get the Saints back at the one-yard line. On the next play Hightower finished off the drive, spinning off a tackle from Mbu and Schofield to score the touchdown and push the Saints ahead by a score of 7-3. The eight-play, 70-yard scoring drive finished with 3:13 left in the first quarter.
Ryan hit Jones over the middle for a 10-yard gain to start the ensuing possession. Ryan then fumbled the snap on an exchanged from center Gino Gradkowski, but managed to corral it before pitching it to Freeman. However the Saints defense had already blown up the play and Freeman was dropped for a four-yard loss. The Falcons dialed up a screen to Freeman on 2nd-and-15, and the running back was able to pick his way through traffic for a 14-yard gain. Freeman then converted on 3rd-and-1, showing patience and picking his hole for a seven-yard gain. Ryan’s next pass was to Moeaki, who was decked by a Saints defender when going over the middle. On the next play, which was the final play of the first quarter, Freeman was able to break out on the right side to get nine yards on the carry. Moeaki converted a 3rd-and-1 to start the second quarter with a five-yard reception. Then on a rollout, Ryan floated a pass to Moeaki, who found plenty of room down the sideline before lowing his shoulder and running over Saints safety Jairus Byrd to score on a 42-yard play, getting a key downfield block from fellow tight end Tamme in the process. The Falcons were back on the scoreboard after an eight-play, 82-yard scoring drive and now had regained the lead 10-7 with 14:24 left in the first half.
Cadet had another good gain on the ensuing kickoff, with his 38-yard return starting the Saints at their 32-yard line. Brees hit his first pass, a check down to Hightower over the middle, for a 12-yard gain. His next pass was a back-shoulder throw to Coleman that went for 22 yards as Alford got a bit turned around on the coverage. Two plays later, Worrilow had tight coverage against Hill on a throw over the middle to break it up and bring about 3rd-and-7. But the Saints converted thanks to Cadet beat Clayborn in the flat for an eight-yard gain. Brees went for Watson next, but the tight end couldn’t reel in the high throw along the sideline. Clayborn was once again trailing in the coverage against Cadet on another flat pass from Brees that went for six yards, setting up a 3rd-and-4. Cooks converted on a four-yard completion over the middle. Clayborn now found himself rushing the quarterback, delivering a hit on Brees on the next play. However the veteran quarterback threw a perfect strike to Watson in the end zone. Godfrey was in tight coverage, but couldn’t break up the throw over his outstretched hands. Yet the officials initially ruled that Watson was out of bounds, negating the score. However the Saints challenged the ruling and replay indicated that Watson was able to get one foot and a knee down in bounds, reversing the initial call and giving the Saints a 13-yard touchdown pass. The Saints had regained the lead after a nine-play, 68-yard drive, now leading 14-10 with 10:47 left in the second quarter.
The Falcons found themselves quickly in a 3rd-and-8 on their next series after a run by Freeman was bottled up and Jones dropped a second-down pass from Ryan on a comeback route. On third down, Ryan stepped up in the pocket and lobbed a throw over a Saints defender into the waiting arms of Tamme for a 32-yard gain. With the ball now in Saints territory, Jones then made a nice grab on a crossing pattern off a Ryan rollout, although stumbled, limiting his gain to 15 yards. The Saints defense got good penetration on the next play, dropping Freeman’s carry for a three-yard loss. Two plays later on 3rd-and-8, Ryan’s throw to Hardy was high and behind the receiver with cornerback Kyle Wilson in tight coverage. The Falcons were forced to settle for a field goal, but Graham’s low 45-yard kick was blocked by defensive end Cam Jordan. The Saints took over with 7:12 left in the second quarter at their 35-yard line.
Hightower was able to shake Durant in the flat and gain 21 yards off a Brees throw on first down, putting the Saints immediately in Falcons territory. Two plays later, Coleman made a nice grab along the sideline for 13 yards, giving the Saints another first down. After two stops by the Falcons defense, the Saints found themselves in a 3rd-and-5 situations from the 21-yard line. The Saints tried a pick route and a throw to Hill, but Godfrey closed quickly on the receiver and nabbed him for a four-yard stop. The Saints called a timeout to think about going for it on 4th-and-2 and opted to do so. Brees hit wide receiver Willie Snead in the flat, but Alford closed and delivered a big hit to stop him dead in his tracks, half a yard shy of the sticks. The Falcons took over at their 17-yard line with 3:29 left in the first half.
Freeman broke a couple of tackles on a run up the middle for three yards to start the drive. Jones broke open on a cross, gaining 27 yards on the next play. Ryan then overthrew Roddy White on a corner route, missing another big-play opportunity. The Falcons tried to use a shallow cross to Hardy on the next play, but he was upended by Wilson for a gain of six yards. After the two-minute warning hit, the Falcons found themselves facing a 3rd-and-4. The Falcons opted to pitch it to Freeman, but the Saints read the play and knifed through to drop him for a one-yard loss. However a face mask penalty on linebacker Ramon Humber gifted the Falcons with a first down at the 32-yard line with 1:48 left in the first half. Ryan got flushed out of the pocket, but managed to find an open White along the sideline for a gain of 10 yards. Freeman then was able to dance his way to seven yards on a draw play up the middle before Saints stopped the clock at 1:30 with their second timeout. The Falcons converted on 2nd-and-3 as Ryan hit Jones in the flat, who added more yards after the catch for a 14-yard gain to get the ball down to the one-yard line. The Saints burned their final timeout, stopping the clock with 1:17 left in the second quarter. The Falcons tried a sweep to the right, but Freeman couldn’t find room and lost two yards, backing up the Falcons. The Falcons used their first timeout, leaving just 30 seconds left on the clock before halftime. Ryan then found Freeman on the next play on an out pattern in the front corner of the end zone after looking for Jones in the back off a slant. Freeman reeled in the grab for a four-yard score to put the Falcons back on top, 17-14 with 26 seconds left in the first half. Jones seemed to stumble on the play and went into the locker room before the half to have his ankle examined.
The Saints knelt on the ball after receiving the kickoff, content to go into halftime down three points.
The Falcons received the opening kickoff of the second half, starting their first possession at their 20-yard line after a touchback. Jones’ injury scare was short-lived as the Falcons receiver was back on the field for the opening play of the drive. They dialed up a play-action fake before Ryan settled for a throw to Tamme over the middle for a 12-yard gain. On a stretch play to the left side two plays, Freeman found little running room, cutting back and gaining seven yards. That brought up a 3rd-and-2 and Ryan found an open Jones in the flat for a seven-yard gain to convert. A holding call on Toilolo on a carry by Ward pushed the Falcons back 10 yards. Two plays later, the Falcons tried a comeback route to Jones, but the ball went through his hands. However, Saints defensive tackle Bobby Richardson was flagged for roughing the passer, running into Ryan well after he delivered the ball. That gave the Falcons 15 yards of field position, putting them at the Saints 48-yard line. The Falcons dialed up another play-action deep pass two plays later and this time Ryan seemed to hit a streaking White in stride, but the ball went through the hands of the veteran receiver as he tried to make the over-the-shoulder grab. Then on 3rd-and-8, Jordan was able to swim past right guard Chris Chester and worked past Gradkowski to get a sack on Ryan, forcing a Falcons punt.
The Saints started the next drive at their eight-yard line but quickly gained 10 yards on first down on a Hightower run. Then Brees found a wide open Snead over the middle behind the linebackers and in front of the Falcons safeties for a 22-yard gain to get them near midfield. Three plays later, Falcons linebacker Brooks Reed was able to close on a quick throw to Cooks in the flat, dropping him for a three-yard loss. After a five-yard gain on a flat pass to Watson, the Saints found themselves in a 3rd-and-8. Brees had plenty of time to throw but missed on his throw to fullback Austin Johnson, however Falcons cornerback Phillip Adams was flagged for a holding call and the Saints had a new set of downs. After a five-yard run by Hightower and a 12-yard reception by Cooks in the flat, the Saints had another first down at the Falcons 23-yard line. The Saints tried some trickery, calling a running back toss and pass. Cadet delivered a nice pass to an open Watson, but Godfrey closed at the last possible second to bat away the sure touchdown. Brees tried to hit Watson down the seam on his next throw, but it was too high for the veteran tight end. Not to mention the tight coverage from Ishmael, draped over him to help break up the throw. On 3rd-and-10, Brees overthrew Cooks on a deep cross and the Saints settled for a field goal. Forbath hit the 41-yard kick and the score was now tied 17-17 with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
The Falcons dialed up another play-action pass to Jones on a crossing pattern, who gained 13 yards before exiting briefly to deal with his sore ankle. Freeman got a pair of carries for a combined seven yards, bringing about a critical 3rd-and-3. Jones reentered the game and beat the Saints corner on a whip route, converting with a seven-yard completion. After a four-yard completion on a Ryan check down to Freeman, the Saints were penalized with 12 defenders on the field, giving the Falcons five yards. Freeman took his next carry 10 yards, running back fullback Patrick DiMarco on an off-tackle run to the left. Ryan then tried a naked bootleg, but with Jordan closing on him his throwback to Toilolo was off the mark and the Falcons tight end didn’t do a great job adjusting to the errant throw. Then Ryan tried a shallow cross to Hardy, but the pass went through the rookie receiver’s hands, bringing about a 3rd-and-10. Hardy redeemed himself by winning on a comeback route and gained 16 yards to put the ball in the red zone at the Saints 15-yard line. Freeman once again ran behind DiMarco off the left side, but managed to cut back to avoid a closing Vaccaro, gaining six yards on the run. Freeman’s next carry was bottled up for no gain to end the third quarter. To start the fourth quarter the Falcons converted a 3rd-and-4 on a sprint out to Hardy for a gain of six yards. But on the next play, a 1st-and-goal from the three-yard line, Freeman spun away from a Saints defender and was popped by defensive tackle John Jenkins causing the ball squirted out. Jenkins jumped on the loose ball and the Saints recovered at the four-yard line. The Falcons blew another prime scoring opportunity with an untimely red-zone turnover.
Brees connected with Coleman on an out pattern on the ensuing drive on second down for a 13-yard completion after he made a nice grab over the outstretched hands of Reed. Two plays later, Hightower converted a 2nd-and-3 on a four-yard run up the middle. Brees dialed up a deep shot to Snead two plays later but Alford was in perfect trailing position to break up the throw. But on the next play Snead beat Alford on a slant to convert a 3rd-and-6 with a gain of 13 yards. The Saints tried to go back to Hightower on the next play, but an unblocked Babineaux shot through the line and dropped him for a five-yard loss just as he was receiving the handoff. Cooks gained four yards on a shallow cross before Trufant knocked him out-of-bounds, to bring about a 3rd-and-11. Coleman broke open on an in-route and converted on a 21-yard throw and catch to get the ball to the Falcons 35-yard line. Then Brees dialed up Coleman again on a quick out, who stiff-armed Trufant for a 12-yard gain and another first down. Two plays later Brees connected with Watson a quick-hitter down the seam but Ishmael did a nice job coming upfield and helping to limit it to a five-yard gain. On the ensuing 3rd-and-1 at the Falcons 14-yard line, Hightower converted on a two-yard run up the middle. Brees’ next pass was a shallow one to Cadet in the flat as he beat Schofield and gained nine yards before being brought down at the three-yard line. Cadet tried to run it up the middle on the next play, getting popped by Worrilow before Godfrey was able to punch the ball out on his way to the ground at the 1-yard line. Alford jumped on the loose ball for the recovery. The ruling was reviewed but stood due to a lack of evidence clearly showing if Cadet’s knee was down before Godfrey knocked it loose. The Falcons had the ball back with 6:04 left in the game at their one-yard line.
DiMarco gave the Falcons some breathing room with a seven-yard catch and run in the flat. Ryan then found his top playmaker in Jones on a corner route for a 29-yard gain. Jones seemingly juggled the ball a bit as he was going out-of-bounds, suggesting that he might not have gotten both feet down before he gained complete control, but the Saints were slow to challenge the catch. The Falcons made them pay two plays later as Jones broke open again on a deep cross for a gain of 27 yards, putting the Falcons at the Saints 35-yard line. The Falcons handed it off to Freeman, who netted just a single yard before being brought down by the Saints. On second down Ryan saw pressure in his face and his pass was tipped at the line by defensive tackle Kevin Williams. That brought about 3rd-and-9 with 2:56 left in the game. The Falcons called a pick route and a shallow cross to Hardy, who gained six yards. It wasn’t enough for a first down, but put the Falcons in position for a potential field goal at the Saints 28-yard line. However Levitre was flagged for a personal foul for trying to clear the pile after Hardy’s reception. That pushed the Falcons back 15 yards, out of field-goal range and the team was forced to punt. Bosher boomed a high 29-harder that was fair caught by Byrd at the Saints 14-yard line with 2:39 left in the game.
Coleman broke wide open on first down of the ensuing Saints series, but dropped what could have been a huge gain due to him looking upfield before securing the catch. Falcons linebacker Nate Stupar made a tackle on the next play, stopping a check down to Watson after seven yards, bringing about the two-minute warning and a 3rd-and-3. The Saints dialed up a back-shoulder fade route to Watson, but it was under thrown and Falcons rookie cornerback Akeem King was there on the coverage to help break it up by preventing Watson from cleanly adjusting to the throw. The Saints punted the ball right back to the Falcons with 1:47 left in the game.
On first down, Ryan looked for an open Freeman on a check down over the middle but threw late, allowing safety Jamarca Sanford to read it perfectly and break on the throw for an interception. The Saints took right back over at the Falcons 25-yard line with 1:42, already in position to nail a game-winning field goal.
The Saints ran it twice to Hightower, forcing the Falcons to burn two timeouts, bringing about a 3rd-and-2 with 1:31 left in the game. Hightower took the pitch, avoided the diving tackle from a penetrating Schofield and converted on a nine-yard run. The Saints burned a timeout with 43 seconds left before kneeling on the ball. The Falcons burned their final timeout with 41 seconds before the Saints knelt once more, now able to run the clock down to three seconds before calling their last timeout. Forbath came onto the field and hit a low, wobbly kick down the middle from 31 yards out as time expired to give the Saints a win.
The Falcons finish without a winning record for the third consecutive year, and after going 5-1 within the division a year ago, saw their fortunes reversed with a 1-5 finish in 2015. The Falcons will take their lumps and hope to regroup in the offseason before going back at it in 2016. As the second-place finishers in the NFC South, they are likely to sport a much harder schedule after sporting one of the easier schedules in 2015.