By PAUL NEWBERRYAP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Matt Ryan bolstered his MVP credentials with a brilliant first half Sunday, throwing four touchdown passes to lead the Atlanta Falcons to a 38-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints, securing a first-round playoff bye.
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.
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.
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 chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” 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.
Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal and Saints receiver Willie Snead IV were both left with possible concussions after a huge collision in the fourth quarter.
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 is facing questions 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.