The plot for this one was, er, delicious. Would the Falcons lay another egg against their nemesis? Or would they put game away early – render it over easy, so to speak – and exit sunny side up?
The hated Saints arrived in town Wednesday to an airport egging of the team bus. This became national news, and it only added to the curious history of this strangest of rivalries. (Or non-rivalry, as the Falcon-turned-Saint Curtis Lofton averred this week.) From Big Ben Right to The Yolk’s On You — let’s see Cowboys-Redskins top THAT.
No matter the buildup, Falcons-Saints is always a frenzied affair. The way Thursday’s game began, you’d have sworn the Georgia Bulldogs had donned a different red-and-black uniform and showed up two days early. The Falcons ran so fast and hit so hard and gesticulated with such force that they appeared to be wide-eyed collegians, not jaded pros.
The trouble with working with such early fervor in an NFL game is that fervor tends to flame out after a quarter or so, which is precisely what happened here. The Falcons led 17-0 after 21 minutes but were outrageously lucky to escape the first half with a 10-point lead.
Drew Brees, who lives to beat the Falcons, had stopped — at least for the moment — throwing the ball to the other team, as you figured he would. (Say what you will about the Saints, but they do have a world-class quarterback.) But New Orleans called its final timeout of the half with 2:24 remaining, and then Jimmy Graham was called for offensive interference to negate a Darren Spoles touchdown. The half ended before the Saints could array themselves for a field goal, and that was the first of several let-offs for the Falcons.
“That was huge,” Mike Smith said afterward. “We got off the field with no points, and we were reeling a bit.”
The unsteadiness continued. Brees kept driving his team in the third quarter, but the Falcons’ defense kept forcing field goals. Finally Brees did it again: His pass was intercepted by strong safety William Moore, and the Falcons moved, if only slightly, to the field goal that pushed the lead back to seven points.
It’s hard to say where the Falcons’ offense went. It pounded the league’s worst defense for 140 first-quarter yards, but over the final three periods the Saints – who cannot, we must emphasize, play a lick of D — stopped almost everything the Falcons tried. Key stat: Through three quarters, the Falcons were 0-for-7 on third-down conversions. But the offense roused itself late, and Matt Bryant’s 55-yard field goal with 4 1/2 minutes left was the clincher.
This wasn’t the first time the Falcons had authored such a halting prime-time performance. They started fast against Denver but were reduced to holding on at the end, and against Dallas they’d relied on an unassuming defense to keep the game in place long enough for the offense to wake up and win it. Toss those two games into a blender and you wound up with this one: Fast start, sluggish middle, better on D than on O.
Once again, the Falcons failed to deliver the kind of comprehensive thrashing of a brand-name opponent that would have quelled some of that they-aren’t-as-good-as-their-record chatter. And yet: Once again, the Falcons won. They fought off the Saints and moved within a Tampa Bay loss on Sunday of clinching the NFC South with a month to spare. They won their second heated game in a five-day span, and the more they win the more we need to stop asking just how they do it.
Because here’s how they do it: By being a team. Sometimes the offense bails out the defense, and sometimes vice versa. (Who would have dreamed William Moore would catch more passes in this game that Roddy White?) But every week except one the result, as Mike Smith is wont to say, has been to his team’s liking. No matter how you fry or poach or scramble it, 11-1 is 11-1.
And beating the Saints would feel good even if this team were 1-11. This marked only the third victory over New Orleans in 10 tries for the Dimitroff/Smith/Ryan troika. Better still, it reclassified the Saints’ playoff chances – they’re 5-7 – as a forlorn hope. Take that, non-rivals!
So maybe the game itself was only half as dominating as Falcons fans would have hoped. Big deal. They beat the Saints. They intercepted FIVE Brees passes. They broke the record streak for games with a touchdown pass by the quarterback who’d kept throwing late in the Superdome blowout last year to set another record. Only one team left the field with egg on its face, and it wasn’t the 11-1 Falcons.
Further reading: The powerful Falcons, Brees’ INTS and the Saints’ botch.
By Mark Bradley