Matt Ryan bolsters MVP case, Falcons clinch No. 2 seed

The Atlanta Falcons reached the end zone on all five first-half possessions, dismantling the New Orleans Saints and securing the NFC's No. 2 seed in a 38-32 victory. Here's what we learned:

  1. Matt Ryan directed one of the most extraordinary first-half eviscerations in recent memory, reaching the end zone on the opening drive for the sixth consecutive week -- the longest stretch of the Super Bowl era. Clicking on all cylinders, Ryan's juggernaut racked up 18 first downs on 28 plays en route to five touchdowns on the first five possessions. How impressive was Atlanta's onslaught? At one point in the second quarter, Ryan had faced just one third down on four touchdown drives while the Falcons had yet to possess the ball for more than four minutes in the game. It was fitting that the home crowd erupted in "MVP" chants as Ryan's offense exploded for 35 first-half points -- the most allowed by the Saints in the opening half during the Sean Payton era. Leading the highest-scoring attack in the league, Ryan will finish with an NFL-best 117.1 passer rating to go with the highest yards-per-attempt figure (9.26) ever by a quarterback with 400 or more passes in a season. Unless Aaron Rodgers throws at least three touchdowns Sunday night, Ryan will also stand atop the list with 38 passing scores. By any fair measure, he's the most valuable player of 2016.
  1. It was fair to question Atlanta's apparent defensive improvement after limiting the lifeless offenses of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Carolina to an average of 14.3 points over the past three weeks. Although the Falcons deserve credit for keeping the Saints' high-powered offense in check until garbage time, the red-zone defense is among the worst in the league and remains a concern entering the postseason.

After missing the majority of the first quarter with a left shoulder injury, Vic Beasley returned to secure the league lead with 15.5 sacks. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate highlights the promise of the last two draft classes which also feature run-stuffer Grady Jarrett, cornerback Jalen Collins and the impressive rookie duo of middle linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal.

  1. Three members of the Saints' offense reached noteworthy milestones in a losing effort. Drew Brees cleared 5,000 passing yards for the fifth time in his illustrious career. All other quarterbacks in NFL history have combined to reach the mark just four times. A 38-yard run in the fourth quarter propelled Mark Ingram past the 1,000-yard milestone for the first time in his six-year career. Wideout Michael Thomas became the 17th rookie to reach 1,000 receiving yards since the 1970 merger, breaking Marques Colston's franchise rookie records with 1,137 yards and nine touchdown catches. He also broke Reggie Bush's Saints rookie record with 92 receptions.
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