Saints demolish Falcons, but still miss the playoffs

Published 7:21 pm Sunday, January 7, 2024

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Derek Carr and the New Orleans Saints’ offense produced when it had to — and when it didn’t.

In the end, they still missed the playoffs and were left answering questions about a late play-call that caused some hard feelings.

Carr passed for four touchdowns to lift the Saints over the Atlanta Falcons 48-17 Sunday, but both teams missed out on a chance to win the division when Tampa Bay beat Carolina.

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And New Orleans’ last hope for an NFC wild-card spot evaporated when Green Bay beat Chicago later Sunday.

“Our record is what our record is and we’ve earned whatever comes our way,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said.

New Orleans’ final touchdown — a 1-yard run by Jamaal Williams out of a formation usually used to take a knee and run out the clock — ruffled Falcons feathers and upset Allen, too.

The Saints coach said he and his staff had called for the offense to run out the clock, but players on the field decided on their own to give Williams a chance to score his only touchdown of the season. Soon after, what would normally be a postgame handshake between head coaches became a testy scene in which Falcons coach Arthur Smith could be seen angrily asking an apologetic Allen for an explanation.

“That’s not acceptable,” Allen said, adding that Smith had a right to be upset about it.

Smith seemed to modify his stance somewhat after the game.

“We didn’t stop them the second half, and they can do whatever they want,” Smith said. “Hats off to them. They kicked our you-know-what.”

Either New Orleans (9-8) or Atlanta (7-10) would have won the NFC South by winning their regular-season finale if Tampa Bay lost. Baker Mayfield and the Bucs finished off a 9-0 victory while the Saints and Falcons were still on the field.

New Orleans also could have captured a wild-card spot with losses by both Seattle and Green Bay in Sunday’s late games. Seattle beat Arizona 21-20, and Green Bay defeated Chicago 17-9.

Carr passed for 264 yards and rookie receiver A.T. Perry caught two scoring passes to double his season total for New Orleans.

“It feels great because I think we proved over the last two months, like, it’s not a fluke,” Carr said of the Saints’ production on offense, which improved as the Saints won four of their last five games.

“We all wanted it sooner. We all wanted it to look like that all the time,” Carr added. “But hopefully this last half of the year has shown that this is what we can be going forward.”

In the Atlanta locker room, speculation swirled around Smith’s future following his third-straight losing season. The Falcons have gone 7-10 in all three of Smith’s seasons as coach, and have not finished with a winning record since 2017.

“I understand the questions and appreciate them, but we just finished the game,” Smith said. “Obviously, it wasn’t what we needed today. The second half got out of hand.”

Saints receiver Rashid Shaheed, named to the Pro Bowl as a returner, caught a 39-yard touchdown pass. Chris Olave hauled in a 26-yard touchdown on a contested pass that the receiver tipped to himself in the end zone. New Orleans running back Kendre Miller, returning from a Week 9 ankle injury, rushed for a 3-yard touchdown in the first half.

After Atlanta ruled out quarterback Taylor Heinicke because of an ankle injury, 2022 third-round draft choice Desmond Ridder got his 13th start this season. His day was highlighted by a swing pass that Bijan Robinson turned into a 71-yard touchdown down the left sideline in the first quarter.

Ridder’s day was marred by two turnovers that led to Saints touchdowns in the second half. Defensive back Alontae Taylor, who’d been benched for mistakes on a pair of explosive Falcons plays in the first half, intercepted Ridder after returning as an injury replacement. That set up Olave’s score that gave New Orleans the lead for good at 24-17 early in the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Ridder’s shotgun fumble was recovered by defensive end Payton Turner, who was playing for the first time since his Week 1 toe injury. That play set up Perry’s second TD catch.

Ridder finished 22-of-30 for 291 yards and two touchdowns. Robinson had seven catches for 103 yards.

Ridder’s incomplete passes included one that was nearly intercepted on fourth-and-goal late in the third quarter.

That miss — one play after unblocked defensive end Carl Granderson pulled Cordarrelle Patterson down from behind for a loss on third-and-goal from inside the 1 — concluded a pivotal sequence on which Atlanta missed an opportunity to pull within one touchdown.

Ridder was replaced late in the game by Logan Woodside, who was intercepted by Tyrann Mathieu. It was the veteran’s fourth interception of the season, and he returned it 74 yards before being tackled at the Atlanta 1 to set up Williams’ controversial touchdown with just over a minute to play.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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