ATLANTA — You can add Matt Bryant to your growing list of revered Dirty Birds.
Bryant, the Atlanta Falcons kicker, ruined the start of the regular season for the Saints with three field goals, his final kick earning him a 17th career game winner.
Bryant converted a 40-yard field goal to end the first half, a 51-yarder as time expired in regulation and in overtime, a 52-yard shot that ignited a celebration at the Georgia Dome.
“Our guy put it through the pipes, and that was (the) difference in the game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
“When you think about it, the 40-yarder at the end of the half — those other kicks don’t happen unless that one goes in,” said Bryant, a 14-year pro in his sixth season with Atlanta.
“I’m kicking the extra point thinking that I have to kick 51 or 52 yards to win the game. So that way, when it gets to that time to kick a 52-yarder, I’ve already kicked it, so to speak, in my head.”
On an afternoon in which his quarterback, Matt Ryan, torched the Saints defense with 448 passing yards and three touchdowns, while running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith gave the unit fits, it was Bryant who finished off the Saints.
Thanks to Bryant, Atlanta leads the all-time series against the Saints 47-43, ruining the Week 1 road trip.
“That’s the way this game has been for about five or six years straight, where it just comes down to one or two plays here and there,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Opportunity slips away
The Saints offense failed to take advantage of Atlanta on its initial possession, a field goal that could have been a touchdown and another four points.
Brees started with four consecutive completions, including a 32-yarder to rookie Brandin Cooks on the game’s second play from scrimmage. But on what would have been Brees’ fifth completion, a 7-yard gain to tight end Jimmy Graham, right tackle Zach Strief was called for illegal use of hands. The 10-yard penalty moved the Saints to a second-and-19 at the Atlanta 27.
On the next play, Brees missed Graham. On third down, Brees connected with Cooks for a 14-yard gain, 5 yards short of a first down. The Saints settled for a 31-yard field goal by Shayne Graham.
The Saints had just three penalties for 27 yards. Atlanta had 10 for 96 yards.
Hester catches on
Devin Hester, known throughout the NFL as a kick-return master, may have finally found the right system to flourish as a receiver.
Against the Saints, Hester caught five passes for 98 yards, his best receiving outing since 2009.
Hester, a three-time Pro Bowler who is the league’s all-time leader for combined kick- and punt-return touchdowns, is in his first season with the Falcons.
“We came out today knowing that it was going to be a tough fight; knowing points were going to be thrown on the board left and right,” said Hester, now in his 10th season. “And with Drew Brees, knowing the type of offense that he runs, we were going to have to out up a lot of points. And as a receiver, we knew that it was going to come down to us.”
Cornerback Robert McClain may try to hold on to the football he caught from Brees, an end-zone interception he made in the third quarter.
“He tried to go vertical on me,” McClain said. “I decided to undercut him.”
On the third-and-17 play at the Atlanta 14, McClain looked like the receiver, and rookie Cooks the defensive back.
“The ball comes out quickly in the red zone, it comes out lower, and Brees put it low enough where I could get under the receiver and catch the ball,” McClain said. “Thankfully, I caught the ball.”
Five plays later, Atlanta took its first lead.
The Saints had two turnovers — the other was Marques Colston’s overtime fumble after a reception.
The Saints placed starting outside linebacker Parys Haralson in the backfield as a fullback on at least two goal-line situations, including Khiry Robinson’s 2-yard score in the second quarter. Reserve tight end Josh Hill also lined up in the backfield.
Saints injury report
INACTIVES: Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, offensive lineman Senio Kelemete, receiver Nick Toon and nose tackle John Jenkins.
OUT: Receiver Kenny Stills (quad), fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) and safety Marcus Ball (hamstring).