Four Downs: Ryan’s record-setting game leads Falcons past Saints in OT

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards (a career high) and three touchdowns as he led the Falcons to a 37-34 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Dale Zanine

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons started slowly against their bitter, divisional rivals the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. The Saints jumped out to an early 13-0 lead, and were winning by 10 at the half.

But 17 unanswered points from the Falcons made a game of this Week 1 battle, a contest that needed overtime to find a winner.

Atlanta’s offense moved well most of the day, registering 568 yards of total offense and scoring 37 points. The Falcons on defense did just enough to slow Drew Brees and the Saints down to win 37-34.

Here are four observations from Atlanta’s first victory of the 2014 season:

Prior to Sunday’s game, Ryan had eclipsed the 400-yards passing mark twice in his seven-year career, a 421-yard passing game against the New England Patriots in 2013 and a 411-yard contest versus the Saints in 2012.

Ryan’s third 400-yard game was also his best statistically.

The Atlanta quarterback was 31 for 43 and threw for 448 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 128.8, and Ryan completed 72.1 percent of his passes. Obviously, Ryan’s 448-yard performance was the highest of his career, and head coach Mike Smith lumped more praise upon the man under center.

"I thought Matt may have played his best game as an Atlanta Falcon," said Smith. "He’s played a lot of games for us and made a lot of plays. But I was really impressed with his ability to extend some plays today, moving in the pocket, (and) actually getting out and running the football.

"I thought he was very accurate. When you have almost 570 yards of total offense and 448 yards through the air, your quarterback is playing well."

There have been games in his career where Ryan completed more passes, and games where’s he’s thrown more. Sunday’s win, while record-setting from a yardage standpoint, wasn’t solely about numbers. Ryan once again established himself as the owner of the fourth quarter and overtime in the Georgia Dome.

Ryan earned the nickname "Matty Ice" for his acumen in the fourth quarter. In 2012 alone, Ryan led the Falcons on six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. Last season’s 4-12 record didn’t lend to a lot of fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.

But in Atlanta’s first game of the 2014 season, against his most bitter rival, Ryan showed he’s ready to control the fourth quarter at home. He was 10 for 15 for 133 yards and led the Falcons on scoring drives both times Ryan was on the field.

With Steven Jackson at the top of Atlanta’s depth chart at running back, and Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman in backup roles, from top to bottom, the Falcons are set.

While Ryan added 15 yards, the Falcons rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown against the Saints. Better than that, three ball carriers (Jackson (4.3), Rodgers (5.7) and Freeman (7.5)) averaged better than four yards per carry.

Smith, the only rusher that didn’t amass greater than four yards per carry, caught a pass and electrified the crowd with a 54-yard run-and-catch where he broke three arm tackles and raced past a Saints defender.

Because Ryan threw 43 times, there weren’t a massive amount of running plays to be distributed. The four running backs split 22 carries, with Jackson getting twice as many as anyone else.

Three running backs (Rodgers, Freeman and Smith) were targeted four times in the passing game for 73 yards and a score.

When it comes to running the football, Atlanta’s four backs bring different styles to the game. In the passing game, each of them can be threats, not only out of the backfield, but spread out wide as we saw on Sunday.

In four NFL seasons, Jones has played six games against New Orleans, and he’s fared well.

During his rookie campaign, Jones caught 10 passes for 137 yards and a score in two games. He gained 123 yards on nine catches in two games in 2012, and then caught a touchdown pass and seven passes for 76 yards last season in just one game.

Jones added on to his solid career numbers against New Orleans on Sunday, catching seven passes for 116 yards. But it’s not all puppy dogs and gum drops for Jones when he faces off against Atlanta’s bitter rival.

The Falcons are 2-4 in games versus the Saints since Jones’ arrival, and Jones has a propensity for putting the ball on the ground in these big games.

When Jones turned a short pass from Ryan into a 20-yard gain and stretched for the end zone, Saints safety Jairus Byrd popped the ball loose and New Orleans recovered in the end zone. The fumble was Jones’ fourth of his career.

Three of those four fumbles have come against the Saints, one in 2011, another in 2013 and then Sunday’s miscue.

Ryan said he felt the offensive line did "a fantastic job in pass protection" against the Saints.

FALCONS: UP NEXT

That may be one of the bigger understatements of his career.

Ryan was sacked just one time on Sunday. And after the offensive line settled down in the first quarter, he typically had plenty of time in the pocket and wide open lanes to throw through.

Compared to last season against the Saints, Sunday’s performance by the offensive line was a dream come true for Ryan. New Orleans notched nine sacks of Ryan in 2013, and pressured him a total of 46 times.

What makes Sunday’s one-sack gem even more impressive is the fact that starting left tackle Jake Matthews left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury. Backup tackle Gabe Carimi and Lamar Holmes stepped up to make sure Ryan had enough time to set records and drive the Falcons down the field.

The Falcons haven’t released any injury information on Matthews, but he was in a walking boot in the locker room after the game.