Falcons’ win over Saints more entertaining than enlightening

At the age of 39, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant booted two field goals of 50-plus yards against the Saints -- including a 52-yarder to clinch the victory in overtime.

Jason Getz

ATLANTA — For just a moment, forget how the Atlanta Falcons might have collected their most meaningful opening-day victory in club history.

Forget how Matt Ryan threw for a career-high 448 yards against one of the NFL’s best defenses (ranked 4th last year in total yards allowed and points allowed) — while breaking two franchise records along the way (single-game passing yards/career touchdown passes).

Forget how receiver Julio Jones (seven receptions, 116 yards) looked like a beast when running routes … and after the catch (excluding one play — fumbling away a red-zone catch/run in the first quarter).

And forget how Matt Bryant (field goals of 40, 51 and 52 yards), at the ripen age of 39, has a knack for making 50-yard field goals seem like NFL extra points from the first two weeks of the preseason — when the league experimented with 33-yard PATs.

Were you not entertained? Were you not entertained?

The Falcons’ 37-34 overtime win over the New Orleans was absurdly thrilling, so much that it’s hard to think of something this game didn’t offer to a raucous, red-clad crowd of 70,706.

**The Falcons and Saints combined for 71 points and 1,040 total yards.

**Ryan (448 yards, three TDs) and Drew Brees (333 yards passing, one TD) both enjoyed monster passing days.

**Running back Antone Smith maximized his limited number of touches (three) by producing the most exciting play of the game — a shallow-cross catch/TD jaunt of 54 yards, while escaping three would-be tacklers along the way.

**Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, quite possibly the steal of the NFL draft, caught seven balls for 77 yards and one TD.

**The Falcons surviving a healthy portion of Sunday’s game without rookie left tackle Jake Matthews (high-ankle sprain), which meant that Atlanta had to rely on tackles Gabe Carimi and Lamar Holmes to bookend a much-maligned offensive line and limit New Orleans to just one sack.

**Or how Saints head coach Sean Payton elected not to "freeze" the kicker Bryant for the game-tying and game-winning field goals — both from 50-plus yards.

"I try my best," said Bryant in the post-game presser, with a modest tone. "When you think about it, the 40-yarder at the the end of the half (with no time remaining) don’t happen unless that (first) one goes in. … Whenever I go to kick an extra point, I’m kicking the (PAT) thinking that ‘I have to kick a 51- or 52-yarder to win the game.

"So that way, when it gets to that time to kick a 52-yarder, I’ve already kicked it … in my head."

And yet, the one enduring image from the day involved Falcons head coach Mike Smith in the post-game media session, with eyes glazed over from one of the most emotionally draining victories of his coaching tenure (franchise-high 97-60 record since 2008).

"I feel great," said Smith after a few minutes of recapping his team’s come-from-behind win, showing more relief than exhilaration.

But hey, that’s life in the NFL.

Perhaps Smith will enjoy this victory longer than the customary three-hour window of celebration. After all, the Falcons rallied from a pair of 13-point deficits (13-0 and 20-7) and upended the NFC South’s consensus choice for the division title (among media circles) and a possible Super Bowl representative in February.

He also had a front-row seat for Matt Ryan’s most prolific day as a pro.

"I thought, passing-wise, we did a great job," says Ryan, whose previous career-high was 421 yards passing (against New England in 2013). "Obviously, we got some weapons on the outside that creates some good matchups for us."

Atlanta routinely instituted a four-wide look of receivers against the Saints, with Jones, Roddy White (five catches, 72 yards, one TD), Harry Douglas (six catches, 69 yards) and Devin Hester (five catches, 99 yards) all commanding at least six receiving targets.

Heck, even tight end Levine Toilolo — who doesn’t resemble future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez in many ways — accounted for three catches, six targets, 19 yards and a touchdown (third quarter).

"We were in ’11’ personnel and ’10’ personnel a lot of the game, and we were able to spread (the receivers out) and get good looks for our (running backs); and we stuck to it," beamed Ryan, who connected with nine different pass-catchers on this day. "Credit to (offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter) and (O-line coach) Mike Tice and our offensive line. Our offensive line did a really good job."

* * *

Now for the reality check.

Before the season began, I characterized the Falcons as having a top-shelf offense, middling defense and somewhat hot-and-cold special teams (factoring in the return game). And sure enough, all three components came to light in Sunday’s shakedown of the Saints.

Yes, safety William Moore’s overtime tackle/strip of Saints receiver Marques Colston, preceding Bryant’s game-winning kick, was a thing of beauty.

"Best thing ever … especially because it’s overtime," said Moore after the game.

But the Falcons defense cannot allow opposing offenses to craft six scoring possessions of eight or more plays.

Nor can they permit mediocre rushing attacks (read: the Saints) to collect 139 combined yards on the ground.

Atlanta also can’t rack up double-digit penalties and expect to profit down the line — especially away from the Georgia Dome.

In other words, to borrow an eloquent line from noted NFL orator Dennis Green (formerly coach of the Vikings and Cardinals), the Atlanta Falcons are who we thought they were!

Sure, the Falcons (1-0) have a leg-up on the Saints in the NFC South race … but we’re under no delusions here of a division title or extended playoff run. At least for now … and especially since Drew Brees wasn’t razor-sharp.

"… It’s amazing just how identical both sides were in third-down efficiency, red-zone efficiency, throwing the football, running the football, the number of plays, time and possession," said Brees, whose record against the Falcons (since 2006) dropped to 13-4.

Atlanta is certainly better than its four-win disappointment from last year but likely not as deep as the 13-victory squads of 2010 and 2012. Throw in a tough schedule that includes the Saints, Panthers (twice), Packers, Bears, Lions, Steelers, Ravens and Bengals (next week’s road opponent) … and we’re still probably looking at an eight-win club.

Or as FOX Sports South’s Knox Bardeen acknowledges … and 8.75-win team. (Of course, he makes that statement on the assumption that Jake Matthews won’t miss more than 2-3 games to injury.)

Which brings us to this: Given the crowd’s soup-to-nuts enthusiasm from Sunday’s thriller, it’s easy to wonder if Falcons fans even care about whether their team has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

After last year’s season’s torture — where Atlanta muddled through five post-bye defeats of double-digit points — the fans can at least revel in two truths:

The offensive explosiveness and overall joie de vive of the 2012 season has resurfaced once again. And as part of that baby-steps-to-relevancy process … comes the notion of ticket buyers getting their money’s worth.