The biggest home game in franchise history: That’s how this was billed, and here we pause to note that 46 seasons make for a considerable chunk of history. (Almost half a century!) And even if the Falcons entered Monday night’s game against New Orleans with a comfy Plan B — they could lose to the Saints and still win the NFC South and clinch a No. 1 seed by beating Carolina on Sunday — nobody wanted to do it the easy way.
But that, alas, is the way it will have to be. The Falcons tripped over their moment. This isn’t to say they can’t have moments still, but they couldn’t handle this one.
If you’re going to be a champ, you have to show you can beat a champ. The Falcons had already taken down the reigning champs once this fall, but that was in Week 3 in the Superdome when not many people thought this team would be 12-2 on Christmas. That was a case of a rising team slipping up on an established power. Monday night was different: It was a match of peers, a prime-time convocation of two of the NFL’s finest.
It wasn’t a game of precision. Center Todd McClure whiffed on a shotgun snap that spawned the Saints’ first touchdown, and Michael Turner fumbled when the Falcons were poised to take a third-quarter lead. But the defense kept the game close enough for one play to turn it, and one play did.
It was the Falcons’ defense that undid them in their improbable playoff run of 2008, a defense that was so outclassed in Glendale, Ariz., that general manager Thomas Dimitroff flew home determined to embark on a massive redo, and sure enough he (re)did. The Falcons dumped five starters off that 11-5 team and, in going 9-7 last season, paid the inevitable price of such sweeping change. This year, however, has seen the changes brought to bear.
These Falcons can play D with the big boys. On Monday night they held a high-test offense to 10 points — seven off the aforementioned short field — over 56 minutes. They induced Drew Brees, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, to commit two egregious fourth-quarter turnovers, the first a silly underhand toss the Chauncey Davis fielded and returned for the go-ahead score, the second a bat-and-grab interception by John Abraham.
The Falcons had a chance after the Abraham swoop to close the case, but a possession sputtered after one first down. Whereupon the Saints drove to a touchdown, Brees finding Jimmy Graham on a slant with 3:24 remaining. But this was what the Falcons’ defense, even in its wobbles, had done all season: It had kept games close enough for Matt Ryan to win them at the end.
And here again was his chance. He hadn’t had a great game through 56 minutes, but the beauty of Matty Ice is that those first 56 minutes can be a red herring. On the first snap after the Saints took their late lead, Ryan scrambled for 20 yards, and you thought, “Here it comes” — the final copyright-protected Falcons Finish of calendar 2010, to be placed on the shelf alongside the escapes against the 49ers and the Ravens and the Packers.
But then a strange thing happened. Ryan threw incomplete on third down, and Mike Smith, the coach who dares to dare, chose to punt inside the final three minutes. It almost worked — the Falcons thought they’d recovered a Graham fumble, but replay correctly overruled — and Matt Ryan never got another chance.
“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” Smith said, “but we like where we’re at. Fifteen other [NFC] teams would like to be where we are.”
And that’s true. But there was no hiding the disappointment. “You’ve got to look at the body of work,” Smith said, but this was a night that went against what we’d seen before.
A formula tested over 14 games fizzled in the 15th. The defense held the Saints to 17 points and scored seven itself, which should have been enough to win but wasn’t. The offense couldn’t hold up its end, and the dauntless Smitty outsmarted himself at the end. The biggest regular-season game in Falcons annals will go down, sad to say, as a whiff.
By Mark Bradley