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Saints beat Falcons, clinch 1st playoff berth since '13

In a relatively ho-hum installment of one of the NFL's great rivalries, the New Orleans Saints (11-4) throttled the Atlanta Falcons (9-6), 23-13, and clinched a playoff berth. Here's what we learned:

  1. The New Orleans Saints are headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 in the sweetest way possible: A thorough destruction of their biggest rival. The Saints' combination of ball-control offense (33:48 time of possession), Drew Brees' timely big throws and a rugged defensive effort helped them win this game without a lot of drama.
  1. New Orleans' defense was missing a handful of starters, but the Saints continually won the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Saints forced a Devonta Freeman fumble at the goal line in the second half, then stuffed the Falcons on a separate goal-line stand. The Saints held Freeman and Tevin Coleman to 48 rush yards combined, while Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan continued his sensational season with four QB hits, two sacks and two drive-killing sacks.
  1. This game typified Matt Ryan's season so well. One of his key third-down passes was dropped by Falcons receiver Marvin Hall, a pass that was then picked off in what turned out to be a game-turning interception. Hall was bizarrely chosen to be in the game on third-and-long over Julio Jones in what was a rough performance for the Falcons' offensive coaching staff. Another key third down included Ryan missing a wide-open Taylor Gabriel on a play that could have turned into a touchdown. Ryan has been just off all season and now only has one game to turn that around.
  1. The Falcons need to win next week against the Panthers to clinch a playoff spot or hope for help to get in the playoffs. It was telling that, in the Falcons' biggest game of the season, they mentally self-destructed with penalties and mental errors.
  1. The Saints are one win away from winning the NFC South. Getting a home game in New Orleans would be massive for the playoffs, with this game a great example of the difference that crowd noise can make on the opposing offense.
  1. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram touched the ball on 11 of the Saints' first 12 plays. Kamara's numbers (90 yards from scrimmage) don't leap off the page, but he picked up a number of crucial third downs and was hard to handle on seven catches. Brees' ability to throw beautiful, deep touch passes to Ted Ginn and Michael Thomas put the Saints' offense over the top in what was a complete team effort.
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