New Orleans Saints close disappointing season with win in Atlanta

By David Purdum, The Sports Xchange  |  Jan. 4, 2016 at 1:29 AM
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ATLANTA -- Even a last-second road win over the rival Atlanta Falcons could put New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton in the mood to talk about his much-discussed future.

New Orleans safety Jamarca Sanford picked off Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan late in the fourth quarter, setting up Ka Forbath's 30-yard field goal as time expired in the Saints' 20-17 win over the Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

Shortly after Forbath's game-winning field goal, Payton abruptly ended a post-game press conference that concluded with questions about if he'll back to coach the Saints next season.

"We have the players in tomorrow," Payton said, when asked about his future. "We have to evaluate the roster. We have a lot of things we have to do. If I feel the need to get you an itinerary, I will, That's the answer. You with me? I can't be more clear?"

And with that Payton headed into the Saints' postgame locker room for potentially the last time.

The Saints (7-9) missed the playoffs for the second straight season and head into an offseason that could bring much change. Multiple reports surfaced Sunday that Payton will meet with general manager Mickey Loomis as soon as Monday to discuss his future. Regardless of the coach, the roster, especially defensively, will need to be overhauled.

The Saints' defense surrendered an NFL record 45 touchdown passes this season, a statistic that cost defensive coordinator Rob Ryan his job. But they will go into the offseason on a high note, after beating the Falcons for the second time this season.

Quarterback Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson, running back Tim Hightower scored on a short touchdown run, and Forbath made two field goals, including the game-winner, for New Orleans.

The fourth quarter was filled with mistakes and wasted opportunities by both teams. With the scored tied 17-17, Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman fumbled at the Saints' goal line.

The Saints recovered and marched down inside the Falcons' 5-yard line, where running back Travis Cadet fumbled.

The Falcons (8-8) were driving for the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter, but guard Andy Levitre was flagged for unnecessary roughness after a catch by wide receiver Julio Jones that had put Atlanta in field-goal position. Instead, the Falcons were forced to punt, giving the ball back to Brees and the Saints offense at their own 14-yard line with 2:39 to play.

New Orleans wide receiver Brandon Coleman had a big drop, and the Saints were unable to move the ball. They punted it back to Atlanta with 1:47 to play. But on the first play of the ensuing Falcons' drive, Ryan tried to get the ball to Freeman over the middle. Sanford snatched it away to set up the winning kick. It was Sanford's only interception of the season.

"It was a bad decision on my part," Ryan said, "and a disappointing way to end the game."

Ryan threw touchdown passes to tight end Tony Moeaki and Freeman in the first half, helping Atlanta build at 17-14 lead at intermission.

Ryan finished 24 of 36 for 334 yards and two touchdowns and an interception.

Jones caught nine passes for 149 yards, capping a record-breaking season for Falcons' superstar. Jones finished with 1,871 receiving yards, the second most in a single season in NFL history.

Hightower scored on a 1-yard run, Brees connected with tight end Benjamin Watson on a 13-yard touchdown pass for the Saints in the first half.

Brees completed 32 of 42 passes for 323 yards with a touchdown and said he hopes he and Payton are both back in New Orleans next season.

"Anytime the season ends, there are lots of questions," Brees said. "So I guess we will have to wait and see, but I hope (Payton) does stay."

The Falcons got off to a 5-0 start in coach Dan Quinn's first season, but couldn't overcome a midseason six-game losing streak and missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Atlanta hasn't reached the postseason since 2012, when it hosted the NFC Championship Game.

"We've got a lengthy process that we want to go through in terms of finding ways to do things better in every way," Quinn said. "That'll be an important of what'll take place this week.

The future holds promise for the Falcons, though. Freeman blossomed into a Pro Bowl dual-threat player, who accounted for more than 1,600 total yards. Jones is in his prime, Ryan was inconsistent, but again put up solid numbers, and the defense, under Quinn, was vastly improved.

"When you don't have an opportunity to keep playing into the playoffs and you didn't play as well as you would like, obviously, that's disappointing," Ryan said. "There will be some things that I think we can correct. I think there were a lot of positives, a lot of really good things we did this year, but at the end of the day, we didn't do them often enough, and I didn't do them often enough."

NOTES: Atlanta WR Julio Jones entered Sunday leading the NFL in receiving yards with 1,722. Jones broke his own franchise record for receiving yards in a season and finished the year with 1,871 yards. ... The Saints were missing a handful of starters. RB C.J. Spiller, WR Marques Colston, LB Dannell Ellerbe and OL Andrus Peat and OL Terron Armstead were inactive. Leading rusher Mark Ingram was already out for the season with a shoulder injury. ... The 2016-17 season will be the Falcons' last in the Georgia Dome, before moving next door to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is slated to open before the 2017 season. ... Atlanta RB Devonta Freeman eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in the game.

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