The Atlanta Falcons, now 11-1, almost kept to their season-long trend of playing down-to-the wire in yet another close game, but instead managed to stave off a late rally by NFC South rival New Orleans Saints for a rare double-digit victory, 23-13, at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.
The Saints (6-6), after a dismal start to the season, ended a three-game winning streak, including a nail-biting 31-27 conference win over the Falcons just 18 days ago.
Atlanta can clinch a spot in the playoffs if the Seattle Seahawks (6-5) lose or tie in their next game against the Bears (8-3) in Chicago. The Falcons can also clinch the conference title this week if second-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers loses or ties at Denver on Sunday. Atlanta defeated the Bucs last Sunday by a mere point, 24-23, something that has become a trademark of the Falcons – winning most of their games by less than four points.
And it looked as if the same would hold true in the latest game against the Saints until the fellows from the “Who Dat Nation” got in their own way – literally.
On one particular play in which the Falcons kicked a punt downfield to awaiting New Orleans kick return specialist Darren Sproles, his own blocker collided with him just as the ball got there, sending the pigskin to the left of the field as a free-for-all fumble. The Saints were fortunate to regain possession off a compassionate hop, narrowly escaping a recovery by the Falcons deep in Atlanta territory.
But on a number of other plays, New Orleans wasn’t as fortunate.
Kicker Garrett Hardley’s field goals of 24, and 52 yards respectively pulled the Saints to within that infamous four-point margin, 17-13, but quarterback Drew Brees was intercepted by safety William Moore – three of five miscues thrown by the Saints’ quarterback during the game – interrupting his team’s third-quarter rally with 3:58 left in period.
Moore also got his hands on another pass by Brees with less than two minutes to play to help seal the win, while safety Thomas DeCoud, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon defensive tackle Jonathan Babineux accounted for Atlanta’s three other picks.
Brees was under constant pressure, being sacked by Atlanta defensive end John Abraham just once, but hurried all evening. In fact, the Falcons linesmen had 44 total tackles, including six quarterback hits, as opposed to New Orleans’ 28. And for the first time in 55 consecutive games, Brees went without a passing touchdown. He finished with 28 completions in 50 attempts for 341 yards and the five picks.
Then in the fourth quarter and the Falcons back up by 10 following two more Bryant field goals, including a 55-yarder with 4:59 left to play that tied his season’s best, Brees threw another ill-fated pass for an interception. The 12-year veteran who normally passes with precision to a crew of seasoned receivers, had his pass tipped right into the hands of 6-2, 300-pound Babineux, who was tackled on the Saints’ 35.
“That’s a very good quarterback that is normally a very efficient player and we are fortunate to take the ball away. I thought we did a nice job with our pressure in the ballgame and did a real good job of making them one dimensional,” said Atlanta coach Mike Smith following the game.
But the string of events which followed, beginning with only 3:29 remaining in the game, left the crowd of 70,514 in a momentary state of suspension and officials scrambling for clarity.
Taking over on the Saints’ 35 after Babineux’s pick, and the Falcons still up by 10, running back Michael Turner, while attempting to pick up extra yardage through an onslaught of New Orleans defenders, was stripped of the ball on his way down.
Reggie Bush scooped up the ball and ran 71 yards in the other direction for what was initially ruled a touchdown by a single pursuing official and several other trailing Saints players. But with the majority of players from both squads still downfield, suspecting the ball had been blown dead, and the crowd stunned, Coach Smith threw in the red review flag.
After a lengthy review by the officials, Turner was pronounced down by contact before the ball came loose, nullifying the New Orleans touchdown.
The Falcons got off to a textbook start that resulted in a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter, but allowed New Orleans to methodically climb back into the game in the second half.
It was obvious that Atlanta wanted to begin with a strong showing as far as running the ball and made it almost look easy during its opening drive.
The Falcons gained 98 net yards rushing in the first quarter, and had eight total first downs during the period, compared to just two by the Saints.
After an awkward pass that was somehow caught by tight end Tony Gonzalez on the very first play from scrimmage, the Falcons followed with four consecutive running plays, picking up yardage of 35 and five yards, and then back-to-back gains of 14 yards to the Saints’ 17.
Turner capped off the 80-yard drive with a 3-yard run to put the Falcons up quickly, 7-0. It took just six plays in 3:51 for Atlanta to drawn first blood and Turner’s longest run of 35 yards on the third play from scrimmage moved the ball from the Falcons’ 29 to the 36-yard line of New Orleans to ignite the ground game.
Turner then opened the Falcons’ third possession with two hard runs of 12 yards each. Even though the drive stalled, the veteran running back in his ninth season ran for 67 yards in the first quarter alone, and may have silenced recent critics who say he’s losing his edge. And with running mate Jacquizz Rodgers adding another 31 total first-quarter yards, the pressure was taken off Atlanta quarterback Ryan and his receivers.
“We haven’t run the ball as effectively as we would like to throughout the first nine games of the season. I think that we got into a rhythm. I’ve always said it. You’ve got to be able to run the football at some point in time during the season. I thought the guys did a nice job,” added Smith.
Turner accumulated 83 yards on 12 carries on the game. Ryan finished with 18-of-33 for 165 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Gonzalez added another touchdown to his prospective Hall-of-Fame portfolio, with 17-yard TD reception at the beginning of the second quarter, and finished with 58 total receiving yards. Julio Jones had 48 yards in receptions.
NOTE: According to the Associated Press, New Orleans Saints players tweeted their bus was pelted with eggs by airport workers after their arrival on Thursday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.