(UPDATED: 1:03 a.m.)
NEW ORLEANS — So much for the mystery.
There’s no need to wonder how heavily to weigh six consecutive dominating quarters against Carolina and Jacksonville. As it turns out, it means only that the Falcons are better than Carolina and Jacksonville — neither of whom they’ll be facing in the playoffs.
They’re not as good as New Orleans. They’re certainly not as good as Green Bay. It remains to be seen if they’re as good as anybody in the playoff field (although they did beat Detroit. But the Falcons won’t be playing them, either.)
Pecking order was firmly established Monday night. The Falcons got boat-raced by New Orleans 45-16 at the Superdome. At least, that was the score the last time anybody looked up.
“I think it’s an aberration,” coach Mike Smith said when asked what this says about the state of his team.
He had better hope so. The Falcons just suffered their worst loss ever under Smith. The 29-point deficit was even bigger than last season’s playoff loss to Green Bay (48-21).
Some might have been upset that the Saints poured it on at the end. (Drew Brees threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game with 2:51 left, prompting Saints coach Sean Payton to later alibi that he was just trying to get Brees the single-season passing yardage record on that drive.)
But when a team gets body-slammed like this, it has nothing to whine about.
The Falcons didn’t merely get beat by a seemingly faster and more talented team. They got punched in the mouth. They lost both lines of scrimmage. They had receivers laid out in the New Orleans secondary, and their own defense didn’t reciprocate. They got outcoached. They didn’t have an answer for a New Orleans offense that went over 300 yards by halftime or for quarterback Drew Brees, who just made them look silly most of the night.
They gave up a 92-yard kickoff return and allowed a touchdown on a 30-yard fumble return after Julio Jones found himself with an excess of thumbs. So they spread the agony around.
This all happened with quite a bit on the line, not the least of which was a slim chance to rally and win the NFC South.
“It’s pretty embarrassing the way we played,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
“I don’t even know what this means — I don’t have a clue,” wide receiver Roddy White said.
This doesn’t mean the Falcons are incapable of winning a first-round playoff game over Dallas, New York or San Francisco. But they have beaten only two teams all season that currently have winning records (Detroit and Tennessee), and this performance by players and coaches leaves nobody with any sense of comfort.
There’s also this: If things fall just right (or wrong), the Falcons will be coming back to New Orleans in two weeks for the playoffs. Sleep well, Brian VanGorder.
After consecutive wins over Carolina and Jacksonville, the Falcons had started to believe they could go on an improbable playoff run from a wild-card position this season, just like the Green Bay Packers did last season. But this game provided no reassurance of that.
Smith again: “I felt like we had a good week of preparation. I didn’t see this coming. We didn’t play Atlanta Falcons football and the scoreboard indicates that.”
What the scoreboard indicated was that this defense still can’t handle offenses with an elite quarterback. The only thing the first half gave the Falcons were bad flashbacks of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense, ripping them apart in January.
The Saints led 21-10 at halftime. They would’ve had four touchdowns in four possessions, but one would-be score went off Jimmy Graham’s hands in the end zone, was volleyballed by William Moore and fell like manna from heaven into the hands of Falcons defensive back Dominique Franks for an interception. So much for the Falcons’ first-half defensive highlights.
When Brees stepped back to pass, the Falcons’ secondary looked like somebody had kicked an ant hill. The Falcons rarely pressured Brees, rarely blitzed and, when they did, they got burned. Brees threw for 230 yards on only four possessions and New Orleans totaled 306 yards in offense.
There is your reality check about the Falcons’ defense in game No. 15.
Moving the ball wasn’t an issue early. The Falcons’ drove to a field goal and a touchdown on their first two possessions. But when they stalled, New Orleans kept going. As much as the Falcons fashion themselves as an explosive offense, they’re not nearly at the level of New Orleans or Green Bay.
The defense’s only hope against opponents at this level is to punch them in the mouth. But the Falcons were throwing hooks at air Monday night. In the first half, Brees moved the Saints 84 yards in 3 minutes and 28 seconds, 81 yards in 3:59 and 80 yards in 1:55.
You could almost hear defenders yell in unison, “Which way did he go?”
When New Orleans took a 28-10 lead in the third quarter on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Robert Meachem, chants of “MVP, MVP,” went up in the Superdome crowd.
Nobody in white jerseys would cast a dissenting vote.
The Falcons were looking for a sign that they could do something special in the postseason. Instead, they got smacked with a reality check. Barring an unexpected mutation, they’re nowhere nearly good enough for that.
By Jeff Schultz