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Saints clinch NFC South title with win over Falcons

*That's how the South was won. The New Orleans Saints (10-2) clinched their third consecutive NFC South title by beating the rival Atlanta Falcons (3-9), 26-18, in the final game of the Thanksgiving tripleheader. Here's what we learned from New Orleans' victory: *

  1. We're not even into December, and New Orleans has secured a playoff berth. Such was the state of the NFC South this season, as the Panthers (5-6) lost Cam Newton, the Falcons lost their way and the Buccaneers (4-7) remained lost at sea. The Saints' Turkey Day triumph over Atlanta clinched the division for New Orleans for the third consecutive season, a feat the franchise has never accomplished before. New Orleans will be assured at least one playoff game in the Superdome, where they are 6-1 in the Sean Payton era, with the one loss being, well, that loss. But the Saints are in the market for more than just one home game on the first weekend of January. At 10-2, New Orleans is 1.5 games ahead of the NFC North leader and is just a half-game back of the conference-leading 49ers. The Saints can get a leg up on San Francisco next week when they host those Niners in a Bayou matinee. A first-round bye and home field advantage is well in the Saints' sights for the second straight season.
  1. Eighteen days after New Orleans fell at home to Atlanta in arguably the upset of the season, the Saints exacted revenge by leaning, not on their bread-and-butter combo of Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, but on their dominant defensive line and their Swiss Army knife in pads. Without left tackle Terron Armstead protecting his blind side, Brees (184 yards) was effective if not prolific throwing to Thomas (a season-low 48 yards) and Jared Cook (85 yards on three catches, and as many drops), but when New Orleans needed some voodoo magic on Thursday night, it turned to Taysom Hill. Hill's night began with a blocked punt on Atlanta's first possession. On the Saints' ensuing 30-yard drive, Hill, lined up as a receiver, scored the first touchdown, a 3-yard receiving score on a jet pop pass from Brees. Late in the second quarter, with New Orleans facing a short third down in Atlanta territory, the Saints took out their franchise signal-caller in favor of Hill, who took the shotgun snap and sped through the offensive line 30 yards to the house, putting New Orleans up 17-6. Hill logged 13 offensive snaps (his most since Week 8) and 35 total (his most since Week 2) in the victory. With the first two-touchdown performance of his career, Hill reminded us of the threat he can pose on any given play -- on offense or special teams -- and why he could be an X-factor for the Saints during their march into the postseason.
  1. Whereas Hill won the game for New Orleans on offense, Cameron Jordan and the front seven secured the victory on the other side of the ball. With Atlanta missing starting left guard James Carpenter (concussion), New Orleans hurried Matt Ryan (312 yards) all night long, collapsing the pocket quickly and forcing the former MVP into some poor decisions. Ryan enjoyed arguably his worst game of what has been an above-average season, losing a fumble on a scramble and throwing two picks over the middle, including one to rookie defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, who stiff-armed Ryan into the next county on the ensuing interception return. It was never going to be easy for the Falcons, who were without Julio Jones (shoulder) and Austin Hooper (knee) and were left with the likes of Christian Blake (57 yards) and Jaeden Graham (41 yards, TD) to make big plays. But matters were made worse by their offensive line play, which couldn't keep Ryan upright. The signal-caller took 13 QB hits and nine sacks, which coach Dan Quinn pointed out were "too many" sacks, in the loss. Four of those QB takedowns came courtesy of Jordan who welcomed rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary to the NFL ... 12 games into his first year. After the Saints sacked Ryan just once in Week 10, the meeting of New Orleans' D-line and Atlanta's O-line this time around was more indicative of an unstoppable force meeting a readily movable object.
  1. No, you're not losing it. The Ballad of Younghoe Koo was not a tryptophan-induced fever dream concocted by absurdist pigskin puppet-masters for your after-dark viewing pleasure. It really happened. After missing an extra point and a field goal in the second quarter, Koo, Atlanta's replacement kicker, redeemed himself with a second half to remember. First, Koo got off the schneid and knocked in a field goal right before halftime. Then, after Atlanta scored late to pull within nine points, Koo executed an onside kick only for it to be called back on an offsides penalty. Koo responded by executing another, giving Atlanta another shot to score. The Falcons did, on his leg, knocking home a 43-yard field goal to pull within one score. Miraculously, on the ensuing onside kick attempt, Koo succeeded again, giving the Falcons one last chance to tie the game. (Narrator: They did not.) The unofficial stat line for Koo: one XP miss, one FG miss, two FGs made, three* successful onside kicks, one bizarre viewing experience.
  1. Michael Thomas update: The Saints receiver, entering Thursday night on pace to break Marvin Harrison's receptions record (143), hauled in six catches against Atlanta, one more than his season-low. With 110 receptions through 12 games, Thomas is on pace to finish with 147 catches, still breaking Harrison's mark, but just barely.
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