ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons go into the NFC playoffs with a first-round bye and their standing as the top offense in the NFL intact.
The Falcons scored touchdowns on all five of their first-half possession and defeated the New Orleans Saints 38-32 to lock up the NFC’s No. 2 seed on Sunday in the final regular-season game ever at the Georgia Dome
Matt Ryan, again making a case for MVP consideration, threw four touchdown passes and Devonta Freeman scored on a 75-yard run while going over 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season.
“Without a doubt, he”s the MVP,” Atlanta receiver Mohamed Sanu said of his quarterback after catching one of Ryan’s TD passes. “The way he’s played all year, I don’t think it should be given to anyone else. He’s been amazing.”
Ryan completed 27 of 36 passes for 331 yards and a 139.9 quarterback rating as the Falcons finished the regular season 11-5 and dropped the Saints to 7-9.
“We were on point,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of the first-half execution. “That’s when the game was won.”
“It was special to click like that,” Sanu said. “It was awesome to play at that level for a whole half.”
Ryan, who set a Falcons’ franchise record with 4,944 yards, had 38 touchdowns passes compared to seven interceptions.
With the victory comes a bye, which may be needed for the NFC South champions to heal up.
“It was a hard-hitting game, so the extra week will help,” Quinn said.
“The bye is very important,” said Atlanta linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., who increased his NFL-best sack total to 15, despite battling a sore shoulder. “It’s a long season.”
Drew Brees threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes as the Saints mounted a late comeback bid and finished 29 of 50 for 350 yards. The damage was already done, though.
“That’s a real good football team,” Saints coach Sean Payton. “We had trouble getting off the field in the first half.”
The Falcons needed just nine total plays to cover 172 yards for their first three touchdowns, then went 76 yards in 10 plays and 75 yards in nine plays while going up 35-13 at halftime.
Each of Ryan’s four first-half touchdown passes went to a different receiver. Tevin Coleman caught a 7-yarder before Freeman’s long TD run. Then Julio Jones was on the receiving end from a yard out, Sanu grabbed a 10-yarder and Justin Hardy scored on a 7-yard catch.
It was the first time this season that a team had scored touchdowns on its first five possessions. Tennessee had TDs on its first four against Green Bay in Week 10.
Ryan completed 17 of his 19 first-half passes for 235 yards and a near-perfect quarterback rating of 157.8.
Falcons’ fans got a scare when Beasley Jr. went to the locker room after hurting his left shoulder early in the game, but he returned in the second quarter and had one of the team’s two sacks of Brees.
The Saints’ first-half points came on a 2-yard run by Tim Hightower and field goals of 19 and 40 yards by Wil Lutz.
Matt Bryant kicked a 22-yard field goal for the Falcons in the third quarter and Brees threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas in the fourth quarter before Jalen Collins picked him off in the end zone.
The Saints failed on a two-point conversion attempt for a second time after a TD from a yard out by Mark Ingram with less than three minutes remaining, but recovered the onside kick.
Brees connected with Travaris Cadet for a 3-yard TD pass with 39 seconds left, but this time Sanu covered the onside kick for the Falcons.
Even with the victory, the Falcons finished 12-13 against the Saints at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta, which won 45-32 in New Orleans early this season, had lost seven of the previous 10 home games with New Orleans.
While Atlanta is headed to the playoffs as a No. 2 seed, the Saints finished 7-9 for a second straight season.
“Obviously it’s disappointing,” Payton said. “We had some tough losses, but none the less we’re sitting with that same mark. We’ve got to find a way to get over that hump.”
NOTES: Former QB Michael Vick, who was the face of Falcons franchise before falling from grace when he went to prison on federal dog-fighting charges, was among the ex-players invited back for the final regular-season game at the Georgia Dome and received a loud ovation at halftime. … Before the game, a moment of silence was observed for former Falcons S Keion Carpenter, who died last week after a freak accident while on vacation. … WR Julio Jones’ TD catch was the 40th of his career, tying Alfred Jenkins for fourth place on the Falcons’ all-time list. … LB De’Vondre Campbell returned for the Falcons after missing a game because of a concussion, but S Keanu Neal was evaluated for a head injury after a big hit on Saints WR Willie Snead in the fourth quarter. … Inactive for the Falcons were WR Taylor Gabriel (foot) and TE Austin Hooper (knee). … Saints DT Sheldon Rankins left the game in the third quarter with a foot injury. … The Saints placed CB Ken Crawley (knee) on IR and promoted CB Taveze Calhoun from the practice squad.