NEW ORLEANS — Matt Ryan's last and longest of several deep completions Sunday afternoon spared the Atlanta Falcons from another infamous collapse.
Ryan hit Cordarrelle Patterson for a 64-yard gain with a minute left to set up Younghoe Koo's 29-yard field goal as time expired, and Atlanta defeated the mistake-prone New Orleans Saints after allowing the home team to wipe out an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit.
"We just like to give our fans a heart attack, just keep them on their toes to make sure they're paying attention," Patterson joked. "We wanted to put them away early, but it's the Saints; they've got a great team over there. They fought till the end. We did a better job. We got the win — that's all that matters."
Ryan passed for 343 yards, connecting twice with Olamide Zaccheaus for touchdowns, and the veteran quarterback also ran for a score on a bootleg as the Falcons (4-4) snapped the Saints' three-game winning streak and prevented New Orleans (5-3) from moving into a tie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) atop the NFC South standings. The Carolina Panthers are at the bottom of the division at 4-5.
"I felt good after that one," said Ryan, who helped the Falcons halt a three-game series losing streak against their longtime division rivals. "I was excited. We needed to make a play. We needed to win that game. I'm proud of the guys for getting the job done."
Ryan's second touchdown pass gave the Falcons a 24-6 lead with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter, but the Saints rallied to briefly take the lead on Trevor Siemian's 8-yard pass to Kenny Stills with 1:01 left.
New Orleans then missed a 2-point conversion try for the second time in the game, leaving the door open for the Falcons to win with a field goal.
"We got it going, but it was too little, too late," Siemian said. "You can't spot a team that many scores. I knew there was a lot of time left and the game wasn't over when we scored at the end. You were still holding your breath a little bit."
The Falcons have experienced their share of blown double-digit leads in recent years — none worse than their overtime loss to the New England Patriots at Super Bowl LIV in February 2017 after leading 28-3 late in the third quarter.
During an 0-5 start last season that resulted in Atlanta firing its head coach and general manager, the Falcons became the first team in NFL history to lose back-to-back games after leading by 15 or more in the fourth quarter. And just last December, the Falcons fell to the Buccaneers — now quarterbacked by Tom Brady, who led the Patriots to that stunning comeback in Super Bowl LIV — after leading 24-7.
This time, the Falcons didn't fold. Ryan, now in his 14th season in the NFL and with the Falcons, pulled off his 41st career comeback to help Atlanta extend its lead in the all-time series with New Orleans to 54-51.
Ryan needed just one play to burn the Saints' defense for his fourth completion of more than 30 yards in the game and his second long connection with Patterson. The versatile running back beat rookie Paulson Adebo down the right sideline to give him six catches for 126 yards in the game.
"That's 'Matty Ice,'" said Patterson, a 30-year-old former Tennessee Volunteer who is in his first season with the Falcons. "He's not nervous. He's been doing this his whole career."
Even with top Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley unavailable while addressing mental health issues — Sunday's game is the first of at least three he will miss after going on the nonfootball injury reserve list — Ryan completed 23 of 30 passes without a turnover. Russell Gage caught seven of them for 64 yards, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts caught three for 62 and Zaccheaus caught three for 58.
Saints coach Sean Payton started Siemian on the heels of Jameis Winston's season-ending knee injury that occurred a week earlier, and intermittently mixed in Taysom Hill behind center.
Siemian passed for 249 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, and Hill completed both of his passes for 33 yards. However, both quarterback were hindered by a combination of penalties, dropped passes and protection breakdowns.
"They played better than us today," Payton said of the Falcons. "We didn't do the things that winning teams do consistently in our league, and we've got to get that corrected."
James Vaughters' blindside sack and strip of Siemian set up Atlanta's final touchdown after linebacker Steven Means recovered and returned the fumble 32 yards to the New Orleans 6.
But the Saints rallied for three straight touchdowns in the final eight minutes, starting with Siemian's 5-yard pass to Marquez Callaway and Alvin Kamara's 2-yard scoring run with 4:35 to go. The Saints failed on a 2-point try after Kamara's touchdown, but New Orleans sacked Ryan for the first two times all game to force a punt and set up its late go-ahead possession.
"You'd love to have a comfortable lead. Everybody wants to be comfortable," Falcons first-year coach Arthur Smith said. "That's not the NFL, not when you're on the road playing a good team.
"Our mindset has been we're going to finish games. This shows more about their mental toughness."
Atlanta cornerback Kendall Sheffield left with a hamstring injury in the first half, while outside linebacker Adetokunbo Ogundeji needed attention for an apparent upper-body injury in the final minutes.
The Falcons are on the road again next Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys (6-2), who had won six straight before losing 30-16 to the visiting Denver Broncos. The other loss for Dallas was two months ago in the NFL season opener at Tampa Bay, 31-29.