Jan 9, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) reacts with New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) (not shown) on the field after the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons enter another offseason of uncertainty

Arthur Smith went 7-10 in his first season as an NFL head coach but the Atlanta Falcons are aiming much higher.

“You’d be a fool not to want to play for Art, especially this year, the foundation he’s been building with guys in this locker room,” said Cordarrelle Patterson in his season-ending press conference Monday.

The Falcons enter another offseason facing major questions. Quarterback Matt Ryan, 36, has a cap hit of over $48 million in 2022. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley went from being cast as a No. 1 receiver in the aftermath of the Julio Jones trade to missing in action to address mental health. There are signals he could be traded.

Smith said Sunday night Ryan “knows how we feel about him, but you’re not going to get like a hot take from me today to ever back ourselves into a corner. Everything is evaluated every year and that’s the way it goes in the NFL. To make a grand statement right after a game, we’re on the same page. Do I have have to declare that Kyle Pitts will be a tight end for us next year? Do you want me to declare that?”

Smith said the ESPN report linking Ryan to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a potential landing spot was a reminder “you can find whatever you want on the internet.”

Among the building blocks are the Falcons’ 2021 top pick Pitts, who said Monday he felt like he had a good start to his career. He said the biggest challenge being a rookie was staying on schedule and maintaining his health. He said reading defenses is an area he needs to improve in, but first he’s stepping away from football for a breather.

“I’ll go on vacation, take some time away, spend time with the family and get back to it,” Pitts said.

Patterson is an unrestricted free agent after scoring 11 touchdowns as the Falcons’ leading rusher and third-leading receiver. Patterson had 618 rushing yards on 153 carries and caught 52 passes for 548 yards.

“I’m just going to go back to doing what I normally do,” Patterson said. “Training and getting ready for the season no matter what team I’m on — I’m going to give it my all.”

Patterson turns 31 in March. He said his mother, who lives three hours from Atlanta, told him three days ago she wants him to stay with the Falcons so that she can attend home games.

Patterson said teams looked at him as a special teams player, but Smith “trusted and believed in me, putting me in position to make plays” and recognizes he likely raised his value on the open market.

–Field Level Media

Jan 9, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (10) runs against Atlanta Falcons safety Duron Harmon (21) after a catch during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Saints knock off Falcons but fall out of playoff picture

Trevor Siemian came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes as the visiting New Orleans Saints defeated the Atlanta Falcons 30-20 on Sunday.

The Saints (9-8) got a win they needed to stay alive for a wild-card playoff berth, but they were eliminated from the playoff picture when the 49ers defeated the Rams in overtime a short time later.

Siemian replaced injured Taysom Hill in the second quarter and completed nine of 15 for 71 yards. Hill completed 7 of 9 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown before suffering an injury to his left foot.

Alvin Kamara rushed for 146 yards on a career-high 30 carries to help the Saints possess the ball for 39 minutes, 17 seconds.

That helped limit Matt Ryan to 216 yards on 20 of 33 passing, after he threw for a season-high 343 yards in a 27-25 victory in New Orleans on Nov. 7.

Qadree Ollison’s 19-yard touchdown run produced the only points of the third quarter and pulled the Falcons (7-10) within 24-13 at the end of the period.

Brett Maher’s 27-yard and 33-yard field goals increased the lead to 30-13 midway through the fourth quarter.

Ryan threw a 1-yard touchdown to Russell Gage to complete the scoring with 21 seconds left.

On the game’s first possession, the Saints drove 84 yards in 10 plays, capped by Hill’s 18-yard scoring toss to Adam Trautman. It marked the first time this season that New Orleans scored a touchdown on its opening drive.

Younghoe Koo kicked a 48-yard field goal, trimming the Saints’ lead to 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Then, Koo’s 54-yard field goal got the Falcons within 7-6 early in the second quarter.

Hill was knocked from the game later in the quarter. Siemian replaced him and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tre’Quan Smith for a 14-6 lead.

A pair of Falcons turnovers led to Maher’s 37-yard field goal and Siemian’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson with two seconds left, extending New Orleans’ lead to 24-6 at halftime.

–Field Level Media

Oct 10, 2021; London, England, United Kingdom; Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank reacts during an NFL International Series game against the New York Jets at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The Falcons defeated the Jets 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Arthur Blank has COVID, will miss first-ever game as Falcons owner

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints, making it the first contest he won’t see in person since he bought the team in 2002.

The Falcons said he will watch the game from home and won’t be on hand at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team added Blank, 79, is fully vaccinated and had a booster shot.

He “is doing well and is in great spirits, experiencing only mild symptoms at this time,” the team said in a news release, adding the “entire Falcons team is fully vaccinated.”

–Field Level Media

Jan 2, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton claps during pregame warm ups before their game against the Carolina Panthers at the Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Despite hurdles, Saints face Falcons with playoffs in sight

The New Orleans Saints have dealt with a lot of complications this season.

They were displaced to the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a month at the start of the season and had to move their opener from the Caesars Superdome to Jacksonville because of damage Hurricane Ida did to New Orleans.

Star wide receiver Michael Thomas has missed the entire season because of foot surgery, starting quarterback Jameis Winston was lost for the season in October because of a knee injury and more than a half dozen other key players have missed significant time due to injury.

Head coach Sean Payton, several assistants and about two dozen players have missed games because of multiple COVID-19 surges.

Yet despite all that, the Saints (8-8) head into the regular-season finale at Atlanta (7-9) on Sunday with an opportunity to earn a wild-card playoff berth. If they beat the Falcons and the Rams beat the 49ers on Sunday, the Saints are in.

“We have managed to keep our head above water, keep grinding, and keep fighting,” said Payton, whose team has won three of its last four after a five-game losing streak. “The number one goal, outside of winning the division, is making it to the postseason.

“We have the opportunity to do that this weekend, and you just want to find a way to get into the tournament.”

The Saints stayed alive in the playoff race with an 18-10 home victory against Carolina last Sunday.

Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who has missed the last seven games because of a knee injury, returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday after being removed from the reserve/COVID list. Right tackle Terron Armstead (knee) and defensive end Marcus Davenport (ankle) missed practice.

“When you go all the way back to the start of the season,” Payton said, “it feels like two and a half years ago we were evacuating to Dallas during the hurricane. It doesn’t feel like that’s part of this season.”

The five-game losing streak began with a 27-25 loss to the Falcons on Nov. 7 in the Superdome.

Atlanta stayed alive in the playoff race until a 29-15 loss at Buffalo last Sunday.

“Obviously we wanted to get into these playoffs,” Falcons first-year coach Arthur Smith said. “We didn’t. So we’ve got to deal with reality and we’ve got to finish this season strong.”

The Saints and the Falcons are each other’s most frequent opponents, having met 104 times.

“You need division rivalries,” Smith said. “You want people to be excited about a game.”

Matt Ryan passed for a season-high 343 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting. He also ran for a touchdown and the Falcons prevailed on Younghoe Koo’s 29-yard field goal as time expired.

“It’s always disappointing when you don’t have the opportunity to get into the playoffs and keep going,” Ryan said. “But we still have one more opportunity to go out there and try and play as well as we can against a division opponent, a good rival who’s playing for a lot.”

The Falcons have dealt with COVID issues of late as well. At one point they had 13 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but they’re down to three after activating six this week.

Kyle Pitts is the second rookie tight end in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards. He needs 59 more against the Saints to break Mike Ditka’s NFL record of 1,076, but he missed practice Wednesday because of a hamstring injury that sidelined him during the game in Buffalo.

–Field Level Media

Jan 2, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith looks on against the Buffalo Bills during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Arthur Smith says eliminated Falcons will play to win in Week 18

For the fourth straight year, the Atlanta Falcons will miss the postseason.

Their 29-15 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday coupled with other results in the NFC meant that their 7-9 record with one game to go will not be enough to earn one of three wild-card spots.

While some onlookers might view Atlanta’s season finale at home against the New Orleans Saints as a so-called “meaningless” game, first-year coach Arthur Smith will make sure the Falcons are playing out the remainder of the schedule.

Smith was asked Monday if he’d use the Week 18 tilt to start playing different players in an effort to evaluate them for next year.

“Our approach is to win the game,” Smith said. “Every game we go out, that’s our job description.”

That extends to a player like rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, one of the biggest silver linings of the Falcons’ season. Pitts totaled another 69 receiving yards on just two catches against Buffalo to hit 1,017 on the season — becoming the first tight end since Mike Ditka in 1961 to eclipse 1,000 yards as a rookie.

Ditka finished that season with 1,076 (back when the regular season included just 14 games), and it still stands as a record. Pitts could set a new mark in Week 18, but he tweaked his hamstring during the Buffalo game and left early.

Smith said Pitts has not been ruled out for the Saints game yet — but him being in shouting distance of Ditka’s record would not have any bearing on the team’s decision.

“Those things are nice. I’m not disregarding those things, those stats,” Smith said. “But the only stat that matters (is), can we go out there and beat the Saints? That’s why we like Kyle … He wants to help the team. That’s your goal as a football player and a football coach.”

The Falcons will wrap up their season without running backs coach Desmond Kitchings. Smith announced that Kitchings accepted an offer to be the offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia under new coach Tony Elliott, effective immediately.

“He’s a smart coach, communicates well, understands how to provide value every week in terms of strategically coming up with ideas and getting his guys ready to go,” Smith said. “He’s a good, smart coach. He’ll be missed around here but it’s a heck of an opportunity for him.”

Smith said other coaches on the staff, including himself, will pitch in as a running back room “by committee” to finish out the year.

–Field Level Media

Jan 2, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Frank Darby (88) and teammates struggle to recover a fumble by Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquez Stevenson (5) on a punt for a safety in the first quarter at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Bills maintain AFC East edge by rallying past Falcons

On a snowy afternoon in Buffalo, Devin Singletary ran two second-half touchdowns Sunday as the Bills retained their lead in the AFC East race with a 29-15 victory over the visiting Atlanta Falcons.

With the win, Buffalo (10-6) remains tied with New England atop the AFC East but owns the tiebreaker edge on the Patriots. The Bills can capture their second straight division title with a win next week at home against the New York Jets.

On a day when Atlanta (7-9) intercepted Josh Allen three times, Singletary rushed 23 times for 110 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 6-yard run in the third quarter. Allen followed with a 2-point conversion pass to Cole Beasley for a 22-15 Buffalo lead.

The next time the Bills got the ball, they drove 65 yards for another score, a four-yard run by Singletary with 10:46 left that made it 29-15.

Atlanta responded with a drive and Matt Ryan scored on an apparent 7-yard touchdown scramble with 6:07 remaining. But Ryan was called for taunting on the play and a video review determined that Ryan had slid short of the goal line, anyway. Atlanta had to try to jumpstart the drive first-and-goal at the 16 and Buffalo stopped the Falcons on downs to clinch the game.

Buffalo had appeared on its way to a routine victory in the first half as Allen scored a pair of touchdowns on short runs a 14-2 lead. But the Falcons changed the game with three interceptions.

Buffalo was on the verge of building on its lead in the first half when Duron Harmon picked off a batted pass in the end zone. On the next snap, Ryan and Kyle Pitts hooked up for a 61-yard completion that led to a a 1-yard touchdown carry by Mike Davis.

On the Bills’ ensuing possession, A.J. Terrell picked off a pass with 1:06 left in the half, giving the Falcons possession at their own 44. A 24-yard completion from Ryan to Russell Gage Jr. set up a 24-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo that gave the Falcons an improbable 15-14 lead at the intermission.

–Field Level Media

Dec 26, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) warms-up before their game against the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons’ Kyle Pitts first rookie TE since ’61 with 1,000 yards

After 60 years, Mike Ditka finally has some company.

On Sunday, Kyle Pitts of the Atlanta Falcons became just the second rookie tight end in NFL history to tally 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

Pitts, who entered the Week 17 game against the host Buffalo Bills with 949 yards, reached the milestone with a 61-yard reception in the second quarter.

With that play, the 21-year-old Pitts also broke the Atlanta rookie record of 959 receiving yards set by Julio Jones in 2011.

Ditka racked up 1,076 yards in 14 games for the Chicago Bears in 1961. He finished his Hall of Fame playing career with 5,812 receiving yards and later coached the Bears to a victory in Super Bowl XX.

–Field Level Media

Dec 16, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; A detailed view of the NFL shield logo on the field at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Former NFL head coach Dan Reeves dies

Former NFL player and head coach Dan Reeves has died. He was 77.

Reeves’ family announced his passing following complications from a long illness in a statement to NFL Network on Saturday morning.

Per the statement, Reeves died “peacefully and surrounded by his loving family at his home in Atlanta. … His legacy will continue through his many friends, players and fans as well as the rest of the NFL community.”

Reeves participated in a then-record nine Super Bowls during his 38 years in the NFL. He won a Super Bowl as a player with the Dallas Cowboys and an assistant coach on the team.

Reeves posted a 190-165-2 record during his head coaching stints with the Denver Broncos (1981-92), New York Giants (1993-96) and Atlanta Falcons (1997-2003).

As a player, Reeves signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys in 1965. He quickly shifted positions from quarterback to halfback given Dallas’ injuries at the latter position.

Reeves recorded 1,990 rushing yards and 1,693 receiving yards with 42 total touchdowns (25 rushing, 17 receiving) during his eight seasons with the Cowboys. He helped Dallas secure a 24-3 win over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI before joining the team’s coaching staff, with which he assisted the Cowboys in advancing to the Super Bowl on three more occasions.

Reeves, at 37, became the youngest head coach in the NFL at the time when he joined the Broncos in 1981. The team advanced to the Super Bowl in 1986, 1987 and 1989 seasons — losing each time — before he was fired following the 1992 season.

“We’re saddened by the passing of Ring of Fame Head Coach Dan Reeves, who led us to three Super Bowl appearances,” the Broncos wrote on their official Twitter account. “We send our sincerest condolences to his family.”

He joined the Giants in 1993 and was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year later that season. He spent three more seasons with New York before being fired after the 1996 campaign.

Reeves joined the Falcons in 1997 and guided the club to the Super Bowl the following season, however the club fell to John Elway and the Broncos. The Georgia native was named NFL Coach of the Year following the 1998 season.

“Dan Reeves leaves a lasting legacy in our game as a player and coach. His track record of success in Dallas, Denver, New York and Atlanta over several decades speaks for itself, marking a long and successful life and career in football,” Falcons owner and chairman Arthur Blank said. “On behalf of the Atlanta Falcons I extend our condolences to Dan’s family and friends as they mourn his passing.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 26, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Detroit Lions running back Craig Reynolds (46) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons linebackers Foye Oluokun (54) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Arthur Smith praises ‘ascending’ Falcons LB Foyesade Oluokun

Foyesade Oluokun was at the center of another big play for the Atlanta Falcons’ defense on Sunday. Rest assured, Arthur Smith and the coaching staff are noticing his growth.

With the Detroit Lions down four and in the red zone in the final minute of the game, Oluokun stepped in front of Tim Boyle’s pass to the goal line for the game-clinching interception. Two weeks before that, his late pass-rush around the right side forced Cam Newton to get rid of the ball — resulting in a pick-six.

The Yale-educated fourth-year linebacker had no trouble breaking down the play afterward.

“They did a five-out concept, maybe a double-move behind me. I was kind of the robber player there,” Oluokun said. “(Boyle’s) eyes brought me over there, then when he threw it, I guess he thought he had someone behind me, I just made the play on the ball when it came.”

Following the Falcons’ 20-16 win over Detroit, Oluokun ranked second in the NFL with 166 combined tackles. His body of work was enough to elicit Smith’s praise during Monday’s conference call with reporters.

“He’s an ascending player,” Smith said. “We’ve got some really good inside linebackers in this division. … Certainly when you’re playing at that position, it’s a chess match. I can think off the top of my head, the Demario Davises, the Devin Whites, Shaq Thompsons. Guys who are in there that are really good players, really instinctive. That’s what’s fun about this, and I’ve got a great appreciation for those types of players.”

Oluokun has started all 15 games for Atlanta at middle linebacker in 2021 after he gradually grew into the starter’s role in 2018 and 2019. As a first-year coach, Smith could have gone another direction at the position if he saw fit, but he’s remained pleased with Oluokun’s development.

“With a guy like Foye, as he’s continued to play, he’s really taken charge of this defense,” Smith said. “He runs the show out there. He’s embraced his role and run with it this year. It’s fun to watch his progress.”

Sunday’s win was Atlanta’s third in five weeks, making a playoff berth a much more realistic possibility. At 7-8, the Falcons are one game out of the final two NFC wild-card positions occupied by San Francisco and Philadelphia. The New Orleans Saints entered their Monday night game 7-7 and knocking on the door.

After next week’s game at the Buffalo Bills, the Falcons will face off with the Saints in the regular-season finale with plenty potentially at stake. But Smith said his philosophy with the team is to avoid diving into all the maybes and what-ifs.

“Nothing else matters but trying to win the game this weekend,” Smith said. “We just gotta try to win every game in front of us and then it will work itself out the way it’s supposed to. There’s some things you can control, there’s some things out of our control — but the main focus is Buffalo. There’s nothing else that matters.”

The Falcons placed four players on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday afternoon: wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, outside linebackers Brandon Copeland and James Vaughters and practice squad linebacker Dorian Etheridge.

–Field Level Media

Dec 26, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (14) scores a touchdown after making a catch against Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant (27) and inside linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) as Detroit Lions wide receiver Kalif Raymond (11) helps during the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ryan, Falcons hang on to top Lions

Matt Ryan passed for 215 yards and a touchdown and the host Atlanta Falcons topped the Detroit Lions 20-16 on Sunday.

Cordarrelle Patterson had a rushing touchdown for Atlanta (7-8) and Kyle Pitts caught six passes for 102 yards. Linebacker Foyesade Oluokun clinched the win with an interception in the final minute.

Amon-Ra St. Brown caught nine passes for 91 yards and scored the lone touchdown for the Lions (2-12-1), who had won two of their last three games.

Jared Goff, the Lions’ usual starting quarterback, missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Tim Boyle got the start and passed for 187 yards and a touchdown but also threw the costly interception. Jamaal Williams rushed for 77 yards on 19 carries.

The Lions scored first on a 26-yard Riley Patterson field goal. Atlanta had a nine-play, 54-yard drive early in the second quarter, which Patterson capped off with a 6-yard run. The touchdown came on a fourth-and-1 situation.

Detroit answered with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that was extended by a fake punt. KhaDarel Dodge caught a 21-yard pass from punter Jack Fox. That set up Boyle’s 20-yard scoring pass to St. Brown.

The Falcons knotted the game on their next possession with Younghoe Koo’s 53-yard field goal, and the game was tied at 10 apiece at halftime.

Koo’s 48-yard field goal gave Atlanta a 13-10 lead early in the third quarter. Pitts had a 35-yard reception during that drive.

Patterson drilled a 37-yard field goal with 3:06 remaining in the third to tie it once again.

The Falcons grabbed the lead on Ryan’s 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Hurst. The 10-play, 71-yard drive was set up by Ryan’s 19-yard pass to Pitts.

Patterson made a 26-yard field goal with 2:38 left to pull Detroit within four points.

Atlanta receiver Russell Gage fumbled the ball away at his own 37 with over two minutes remaining, giving the Lions a chance to win it. But after the Lions drove inside the 10, Oluokun picked off Boyle’s pass attempt with 33 seconds left.

–Field Level Media