Matt Ryan bolsters MVP bid, leads Falcons past Saints 38-32
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By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) Matt Ryan trotted off the field to chants of "MVP! MVP! MVP!"
He certainly did nothing to hurt his credentials with a brilliant first half Sunday.
The Atlanta quarterback threw four touchdown passes to lead the Falcons to a 38-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints, securing a first-round playoff bye for the NFC South champions.
Ryan was 17 of 19 for 235 yards by halftime, directing the Falcons (11-5) to touchdowns on all five possessions and a commanding 35-13 lead. He finished 27 of 36 for 331 yards, leaving him with a franchise-record 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions this season.
Atlanta is seeded second in the NFC to Dallas.
"It was a pretty cool moment out there," Ryan said, appreciating the crowd's recognition of his brilliant season. "It felt really good."
The Saints (7-9) came into the regular-season finale looking to finish another disappointing season with a three-game winning streak and avoid a third straight losing mark. But they were blitzed early and often by the league's highest-scoring offense.
Atlanta piled up 323 yards in the first two quarters, and also benefited from a 46-yard pass interference penalty against Roman Harper. Ryan threw scoring passes of 7 yards to Tevin Coleman, 1 yard to Julio Jones, 10 yards to Mohamed Sanu and 7 yards to Justin Hardy.
"Matt played particularly well," coach Dan Quinn said. "He just threw some balls that were right on point."
Devonta Freeman ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run and also hauled in three passes for 55 yards as the Falcons put on a dazzling offensive display.
The second half was essentially a chance for Atlanta fans to serenade Ryan with MVP chants every time he was shown on the video board. The Falcons have never had a player win the NFL's top individual award.
The Saints staged a furious rally in the fourth quarter, scoring three touchdowns and recovering an onside kick. But the Falcons pounced on a second onside try with 38 seconds remaining, securing the victory.
One consolation for New Orleans: Drew Brees became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 5,000 yards five times. He was 29 of 50 for 350 yards, giving him 5,208 on the season.
His 471 completions this season set an NFL record.
"I thought we had a better team than what our record ended up being," Brees said.
Before Ryan returned to the field for the second half, he hugged former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in the tunnel.
Vick, whose Falcons career ended with a dogfighting scandal that sent him to prison in 2007, made a triumphant return to the Georgia Dome during a halftime ceremony honoring the final regular-season game at the Falcons' home for the last 25 years.
He was certainly impressed with the guy who replaced him.
"He's in total control," Vick said.
ANOTHER GEORGIA DOME FINALE
The Falcons are moving to Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season, but making the playoffs for the first time since 2012 ensures they will have at least more game in the Georgia Dome.
The new $1.4 billion retractable-roof facility going up next to the dome has already been picked to host next year's college football championship game, the 2019 Super Bowl and the 2020 Final Four.
Neal turned his head as he approached Snead to make the tackle on a 27-yard pass play, but their helmets struck when they both ducked down.
Snead fumbled, though the Saints recovered. Both players staggered off the field before they were taken to the locker room for evaluations.
Saints coach Sean Payton declined comment about his future after a third straight 7-9 season.
Payton was once the toast of New Orleans, posting a record of 62-34 over his first six years with the team, including four playoff appearances and the franchise's lone Super Bowl title.
Since being suspended for a year in a bounties scandal, Payton is 32-32, with the lone playoff appearance coming in 2013.
The Falcons earned a week off in the opening round of the playoffs, only the fourth time they've been in that position under the current postseason format. Atlanta had a first-round bye during the 1998 (different divisional alignment), 2004, 2010 and 2012 seasons. The Falcons won their first playoff game three of those years to advance to the NFC championship game (the only exception was 2010).
The team's lone Super Bowl appearance was 1998. Atlanta has never won a championship.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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Updated January 1, 2017