NINE IS SO VERY FINE: Saints Sweep Falcons, Clinch Playoffs With 9th Straight Win

Photo by Derek E. Hingle

If there was ever a doubt among NFL analysts and fans alike about New Orleans Saints back-up Taysom Hill‘s capability to become an actual legitimate and long-term starter at the QB position once Drew Brees retires, they might have gotten a much clearer indication after yesterday’s 21-16 victory over their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons.

The well-publicized Saints #2 back-up QB and offensive skills player had his most impressive performance of the season yesterday in his 3rd start in place of the injured Brees — and in the eyes of many League observers, proved even further that he is more than able to successfully operate the team’s offense — as he raised his win-loss record as the starter in Brees’ absence to (3-0); while leading the Black and Gold to its 9th straight victory and helped them clinch a spot in the upcoming NFL Playoffs.

The victory also raised the Saints’ overall win-loss record to (10-2). as they swept the season series with Atlanta by beating them for the 2nd time within the past 3 weeks, and now have a healthy 3-game lead in the NFC South Division over Tampa Bay (who were on their Bye Week) with only 4 more regular season games remaining.

Additionally, the red-hot Saints maintained a one-game lead over the Green Bay Packers for the #1 overall Playoff seed in the NFC.

Hill had a career day stats-wise on the ground and also via the air, as he also managed to throw for his first passing TD’s ever as a QB at the professional level, on touchdown passes to WR Tre’Quan Smith and TE Jared Cook. The 30-year old Hill also set the tone for yesterday’s win early on in the game; as he burned Atlanta’s defense and took off for a 43-yard run down the right sidelines as the Falcons had tried to blitz him, but had missed tackling him in the Saints offensive backfield.

Hill completed 27 of 37 passes for 232 passing yards and two touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 107.0. He also carried the ball a total of 11 times for a season-high 83 rushing yards on the ground.

The Saints never trailed in yesterday’s contest thanks to Hill’s heroics, but it was the Saints defense that was the clear difference-maker in allowing New Orleans to remain atop of the conference standings.

The hated Dirty Birds actually were able to narrow the Saints lead to only 1-point late in the 2nd Quarter after a field goal by Atlanta kicker Younghoe Koo, but Hill responded with his second career passing touchdown just ahead of halftime; as he led the Black and Gold on a seven-play, 75-yard drive to open the 3rd quarter, that was highlighted by an 11-yard touchdown scamper from Saints All-Pro RB Alvin Kamara.

The Saints defense was dominant once again for the majority of the contest as they have been for the better part of their current 9-game winning streak; but as is typically the case between these two long-time arch-rivals, refused to go down in defeat without putting up a fight.

Atlanta was able to close the deficit to within 21-16 after Falcons QB Matt Ryan hit WR Russell Gage on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 7:43 remaining.

Up until that point, the New Orleans defensive unit hadn’t allowed a single touchdown to be scored against them since the opening of their game at home against San Francisco back on November 15th, an impressive span of 14 consecutive quarters without having allowed one.

The (4-8) Falcons ultimately got the ball back for one last final drive and needing a TD to pull out a come-from-behind victory, and they were able to drive all the way down to the Saints 13-yard line. But the Saints defense rose to the occasion with the game’s outcome clearly on the line; and on a critical 2nd-Down-and-2 they were able to stuff Falcons RB Todd Gurley for no gain.

On the very next play, Gurley got the ball again on 3rd down for a sweep around the left end, but Saints All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis made a sensational play and stopped Gurley in the Atlanta backfield for a 7-yard loss.

The Falcons had one final attempt to pull out the win on 4th Down, but Matt Ryan’s pass into the end-zone fell incomplete as it was batted down by several Saints defensive backs as time expired; allowing the Black and Gold to narrowly escape Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta with a nerve-wracking but still-very-gratifying victory.

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on Twitter

In his post-game teleconference after the contest via Zoom, Saints head coach Sean Payton took the time to acknowledge how the play of the defense along with Hill’s most impressive performance so far in the absence of the injured Brees, complemented one another as the team continues winning games in the face of adversity.

“Well, look, I think the first thing (with the suddenly-top ranked Saints defense), is that it starts with defending the run. Those were big stops we had in the game, forcing the field goals. That was the difference in winning and losing”, Payton said. “Obviously, it’s fitting the run correctly and then playing your red zone defense. It might be two or three different calls you’re playing but getting real comfortable with the route combinations.”

Payton then acknowledged the growing confidence displayed by Hill, that now has many analysts and fans changing their tune and initial opinion. about the budding Saints superstar.

“I think his third downs all game were strong. I thought his performance was strong. He made a lot of throws. I don’t like the position I put him in late in that game with the turnover (when Hill fumbled inside the redzone on a drive that could have put Atlanta away for good but instead led to their one lone TD drive), but that’s what I saw. I thought, man, we converted a number of third downs. I don’t know what our final percentage was. I think we were 9-for-something, 9-for-13 I believe it was. I thought he played well.”

As for Hill, he took the praise in stride, as he acknowledged openly that while he’s pleased with his own progression over the past 3 seasons and particularly in the 3 straight wins that’ he’s earned as the starter; that he still has room to improve even further; specifically becoming an even better passer throwing the football from the pocket, as well as maintaining ball security (particularly his issues with fumbles).

“As I mentioned earlier, at the end of the day, I’m happy that we’ve gotten three wins. That’s the statistic that I care most about”, Hill told reporters after the game.

“As far as my overall development and the process, I feel like I’m becoming more and more comfortable in operating the offense and I feel like there are so many ways I can continue to get better, which is encouraging when we’re moving the ball, we’re playing football games. There are still places for us to get better at. Overall, I’m getting more and more comfortable.”

That’s good news for devoted Who Dat fans, and especially for the large portion of them who still have lingering doubts about Taysom’s true ability to become the next starting QB for the franchise after Brees retires.

Brees is eligible to come off injured reserve this coming week and potentially could be back under center for next week’s game at the (3-8-1) Philadelphia Eagles.

However at this point, the smart move for the Black and Gold might be to allow Hill to remain the starter, and let his notable improvement continue to build him more self-confidence with each game; while waiting to bring Brees back until the Playoffs begin next month.

The Saints have an incredible (and still undefeated) 8-0 win-loss record record over the past two seasons when Brees has been out of the starting line-up due to injuries; and as a very famous expression from the past states rather clearly and to the point: “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it”….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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