Falcons coach Mike Smith made a gutsy fourth-down call that backfired, allowing the New Orleans Saints to post a 26-23 victory on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.Smith planned all week to be aggressive against the arch rival Saints.
So, in overtime, with just a few inches to go, Smith could not go against what he had been preaching all week.
He rolled the dice.
The Saints, with their behemoth defensive tackle Shaun Rogers leading the way, stuffed the Falcons for no gain. Running back Michael Turner was tackled by Rogers and defensive end Will Smith.
With the win the Saints remained in first place in the NFC South and improved to 7-3. The Falcons dropped to 5-4.
Smith repeatedly took “full responsibility” for the decision go for it at the Falcons’ 29-yard line.
“At first, we were going to punt the football. I had a change of heart and I wanted us to go for it,” Smith said.
Four plays later, New Orleans’ John Kasay kicked a 26-yard field goal for the victory.
The Falcons’ frenetic rally from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, a 133-yard receiving game from wide receiver Harry Douglas, and a powerful 21-yard touchdown run by Jason Snelling will become lost in the cloud surrounding the fourth-down decision.
On third down, it appeared that fullback Mike Cox had picked up the first down. The replay assistant upstairs challenged the spot of the ball and the play was reversed.
The Saints called a timeout.
The Falcons unsuccessfully tried to power behind the left side of the line with a lead block from Cox.
Mike Smith was counting on a close game and had planned to make some unconventional calls. He wanted to attempt to keep the ball away from Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Now, the past four games in the series have been decided by a field goal. The past six have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Mike Smith bristled at the notion that he did not trust the defense.
“That’s a very good quarterback,” Smith said of Brees, who completed 30 of 43 passes for 322 yards.. “By no means is there a lack of faith in the defense.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 29 of 52 passes for 351 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, supported the decision.
“As a player, you have to love the confidence that he has in the offense in that situation,” Ryan said. “We just needed to execute better. I think that play is kind of a summary of the game. We just didn’t execute as well as we would have liked.”
In the past, the Falcons have called a quarterback sneak in short yardage situations.
“I thought it was a good call,” Ryan said. “Mike had that call in. It’s a play that we’ve run in the past with some success. We just didn’t execute. Regardless of what the play call is in that situation we just didn’t execute.”
Even some of the defensive players were on the sidelines yelling for the offense to “go for it.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said, “I liked it. That’s aggressive. It’s was just one of those plays where you can go out there and be tough. Coach made the decision and we are all backing him.”
The Saints took advantage of a blown coverage by the Falcons and held a 10-6 halftime lead. When three players did not know who was supposed the cover the deep third in the end zone, New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham was left alone to grab a 21-yard touchdown.
“Three different guys thought the other guy was supposed to be in the back in the end zone,” said cornerback Dunta Robinson.
In the third quarter, the Falcons took the lead, 13-10, on a 21-yard touchdown reception by Snelling, who ran through several tackles and carried three Saints into the end zone.
The Saints opened a 23-13 lead after a 33-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachem and two field goals from Kasay.
The Falcons stormed back with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez and a 27-yard field goal from Matt Bryant at the end of regulation to force overtime. Bryant had missed a 41-yard attempt to the left at the end of the half to end his team-record streak of 30 consecutive made field goals.
The Falcons were already pointing to the rematch.
“When we see them again, we’ll try to be better prepared,” Weatherspoon said. “It’s on Dec. 26. My birthday is Dec. 29. I won’t forget this.”