Looking for a second 6-0 opening in four years, the Falcons try to win consecutive road games against the New Orleans Saints for the first time in 13 seasons Thursday night.
Atlanta is the first team in NFL history to start 5-0 despite trailing in the fourth quarter in four of those contests, reaching that point by making its own good fortune. After Washington kicked a tying field goal at the end of regulation Sunday, Robert Alford returned an interception 59 yards in overtime to give the Falcons a 25-19 victory.
“The game is not over until the clock says zeroes,’ Alford said. ‘This team … we’re always going to grind until the end.”
With the exception of a 48-21 rout of Houston in Week 4, the Falcons have had to rely on that grit and belief in themselves to pull off nail-biting wins. After totaling 10 wins the past two seasons, Atlanta is off to its best start since going 8-0 in 2012.
“We’re not going to let any one else dictate our readiness,” coach Dan Quinn said. “How we play, how we approach each week.
“We’re always prepared to go as long as we to have to. They just won’t stop backing off and competing.”
Despite three turnovers against the Redskins, Atlanta is tied for fifth in the league with a plus-5 turnover ratio. Julio Jones failed to record a receiving touchdown for the second straight week after totaling four in the first three but recovered a Devonta Freeman fumble in the end zone for a score Sunday.
“I think good teams find ways to win even when it’s not pretty,” said Matt Ryan, who was picked off twice after not throwing an interception the previous three games.
Matt Bryant missed two field goals in a game for the first time since November 2012. However, the Falcons overcame it with another strong effort from Freeman, who despite the fumble ran 27 times for a career-high 153 yards and a touchdown.
Over the last three weeks, Freeman’s averaged 5.1 yards per carry while running for 362 and became the first player to rush for seven TDs in his first three starts.
‘I’m thinking touchdown every play,” he said. “Whenever I get the ball, seize the moment.”
After meeting with Quinn to discuss his perceived diminished role in the offense, Roddy White caught two passes for 23 yards Sunday. Despite eight catches and some trade rumors this season, White expects to remain in Atlanta and be a key part of the team’s plan this year.
‘We’re 5-0, so no complaints, no worries from me,’ he said.
Jones caught seven passes for 107 yards, White had six for 55 and Freeman scored on a 31-yard run to help Atlanta snap a three-game skid at New Orleans (1-4) with a 30-14 victory Dec. 21.
The Falcons are 3-9 at New Orleans since last winning back-to-back games there in 2001 and ’02.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Quinn said. “We’ll be prepared. We’ll be ready to go. We have our work cut out for us for sure.”
Jones, with 105 yards receiving in the last two games after posting 440 in the first three, had 14 receptions for 223 as Atlanta took both meetings with the Saints in 2014. While a hamstring issue won’t keep Jones from playing, center Mike Person will sit with a sprained ankle.
New Orleans is trying to avoid its worst start since going 1-7 in 1999.
‘We’re playing with passion and we’re playing our butts off,” defensive lineman Cameron Jordan said. “At the same time, we’re not capitalizing on plays that we should. We’re missing some minor details and that is something that you can’t be proud of. Going forward, we have the chance to rectify a lot of this.’
The Saints’ problems might be more than minor.
They rank last in the NFL with 409.0 yards allowed per game, are tied for 29th at 28.6 points given up and tied for 28th with a minus-5 turnover differential.
‘It’s definitely a critical time,’ Jordan said. ‘That is something that you can’t stress enough.’
Perhaps making matters worse is the speculation that coach Sean Payton could be guiding another team next season.
‘You ignore half of that stuff and obviously dismiss it,’ Payton said. ‘Our players aren’t distracted by that. The focus of our team is dead square on getting better.”
New Orleans didn’t commit a turnover in its 26-20 overtime win over Dallas on Oct. 4, but had four in Sunday’s 39-17 loss at Philadelphia. The Saints yielded a season-high 519 yards in that contest and picked up 80 of their own 388 on the final possession.
Veteran receiver Marques Colston injured his right shoulder and could miss this matchup. However, first-year product Willie Snead remains a dangerous option after recording six catches for 141 yards against the Eagles.
Sneed leads the team with 381 yards.
Drew Brees, still dealing with a shoulder problem, is 7-2 against the Falcons at New Orleans but threw two INTs and a TD in last season’s loss there.