Matt Bryant kicked a tying 51-yard field goal on the final play of regulation and won the season opener with a 52-yarder after the Saints fumbled the ball away on the second play of overtime.
But this was mostly about Ryan, who completed 31 of 43 with three touchdowns and eclipsed the team passing record of 431 yards set by Chris Chandler in 2001. Ryan also ran three times for 15 yards and dodged the Saints’ pressure most of the day, going down only one time after taking a career-high 44 sacks last season.
For good measure, Ryan eclipsed the team record for career TD passes. He is now at 156, breaking the mark of 154 held by Steve Bartkowski.
The Falcons beat New Orleans for just the fourth time in their last 17 meetings. This one was particularly sweet for Atlanta coming off a miserable 4-12 season, its first losing campaign since 2007.
The teams combined for 17 points in the final 2:50 of the fourth. The Saints got the ball first in overtime, but Marques Colston was stripped from behind by William Moore after catching a first-down pass over the middle.
The game fit right in with a divisional series in which nine of the previous 12 meetings were decided by eight points or less.
The Falcons (1-0), who twice trailed from 13 points in the first half, went ahead on Jacquizz Rodgers’ dazzling 17-yard run with 2:50 remaining. The diminutive back cut this way and that for a 31-27 lead. Back came Drew Brees and the Saints (0-1), needing only 90 seconds to go 71 yards. Mark Ingram powered over from the 3 for his second touchdown to make it 34-31 with 1:20 left.
That was enough time for Ryan. He completed three passes on the tying drive, the big one a 21-yarder to Devin Hester that set up Bryant’s tying kick.
Hester, who has starred as a return specialist, showed he’s still got some skills as a receiver. After not catching even one pass for Chicago last season, the 31-year-old had five receptions for 99 yards.
Brees threw for 333 yards, but was picked off in the end zone after the Saints drove to the Atlanta 14 in the third quarter. Colston had five receptions for 110 yards.
The Saints scored on all four first-half possessions, working first-round pick Brandin Cooks right into their already dynamic offense. He hauled in a 3-yard pass that pushed New Orleans to a 20-7 lead.
Atlanta cut it to 20-10 going into the break, thanks to a brilliant leaping catch by Roddy White for a 39-yard gain on the next-to-last play of the half. Bryant booted a 40-yard field goal that gave the Falcons a bit of momentum.