NEW ORLEANS — If the Atlanta Falcons end up just missing the NFL
If amassing 10 penalties for 91 yards and finishing 2 of 13 on third downs wasn't bad enough, coming away with nothing from inside the New Orleans 2-yard line was even more damaging.
"We had two chances, really, from having the ball at the 1-yard line and to come away with zero points; that's kind of the tale of the day," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who finished 22 of 36 for 288 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
For Devonta Freeman, those two empty possessions will define his Sunday.
He came in with three fumbles this season, all recovered by the Falcons, and only two penalties called on him. He left Sunday with one lost fumble, two critical penalties and a failed fourth-and-1 near the goal line.
"On the fumble, that was my fault." Freeman said. "And when they stopped me on the 1-yard line, my fault again. I feel like no matter what play is called, you've got to get in the end zone and score and I've got to protect the ball. I've got to do better at that."
Freeman's first foible came after Falcons linebacker Dion Jones, a New Orleans native, intercepted Drew Brees on the second play of the third quarter and returned it to Saints 2. The Atlanta running back was stopped at the line, allowing New Orleans' Tyeler Davison to reach in and dislodge the ball. Manti Te'o recovered, ending a Falcons threat that would have pulled Atlanta to 13-7 early in the third quarter.
"I've got to know those situations," said Freeman, who finished with 36 yards rushing. "I've got to know I've got to do better. I've got to know guys are reaching for the ball — every play, not just the goal line."
Nearly a full quarter later, Atlanta again had a chance to cut into New Orleans' lead. Julio Jones caught Ryan's pass with his feet in the end zone on third-and-goal, but officials ruled the ball did not cross the goal line.
Freeman's fourth-down failure came after Dan Quinn's fruitless video replay challenge. New Orleans' Hau'oli Kikaha and Ken Crawley converged on Freeman at the line, keeping Freeman out of the end zone
"He's made so many plays for us throughout the years that we trust him as much as anybody on this team to go out and perform, and he will," Ryan said. "He's going to. He's going to perform at a high level for us moving forward."
Yet, Sunday's loss wasn't just on Freeman. Of Atlanta's 10 penalties, four drew pre-snap flags.
"We've got to recognize there's going to be some aggressive fouls when you're playing a thousand miles per hour," Quinn said. "Those are part of the game. The ones we can control are pre-snap ones."
Now the Falcons are in a win-and-in playoff situation at home against Carolina next Sunday.
"We've got to keep knocking games off and find ways to get the job done, but we've got to play better than we did today," Ryan said.
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