Happy 40th anniversary, coach Don Shula and the undefeated Miami Dolphins. You can blow out the candles now.
Turns out those who doubted the Atlanta Falcons’ ability to go the distance without a loss had reason for the skepticism. And ready to prove it was a division rival that has owned them for the past six years, the New Orleans Saints.
Sure, the Falcons were playing on the road but if ever they were going to finally get a big win over the Saints and its questionable defence, Sunday would be it, wouldn’t it?
The Saints were underdogs at home and more vulnerable than they’ve been in years, or so the theory went.
When push came to shove, however, the Saints pushed harder, manning up with a massive goal-line stand inside the two-minute warning to preserve a 31-27 victory.
How did the Saints pull it off? Well, quarterback Drew Brees was his usual explosive self when needed and with an emphasis on a running game, they managed to keep their struggling defence off of the field for a change. And while that defence bent at times, it never totally collapsed, especially on the crucial late fourth-quarter stop to preserve the victory.
“This is a football team that has been through a lot and we’ve stuck together,” Saints coach Joe Vitt said of the turbulent times surrounding the franchise in the after-math of Bounty-gate. “That’s just the nature of this football team. We come to work with a purpose every day and we don’t point fingers.”
Down by four on their last meaningful possession, the Falcons had every reason to believe they could score and steal the victory, given the ease with which teams have moved the ball on the Saints all season. And march they did, 79 yards down to the New Orleans one-yard line.
They couldn’t punch it over the goal line on their first three plays though and on fourth and goal, Matt Ryan’s pass to Roddy White was knocked away by Saints corner Jabari Greer to all but seal the upset.
They may have allowed quarterback Ryan to throw for a career-high 411 yards — the first time he topped 400 yards in the NFL — and tight end Tony Gonzalez to score two more touchdowns, but with the game on the line, the Saints’ D found some spine.
“Our defence has taken on the challenge of getting better,” Vitt said. “We had to be better today in order to beat a good football team.”
It didn’t hurt that the New Orleans players had plenty of motivation. After the 0-4 start in the aftermath of having their coach, Sean Payton, suspended by the league, they were written off as playoff pretenders, especially with the evidence that the defence couldn’t compete.
Then there was the noise coming out of Atlanta during the week where players such as White were talking confident and eloquent about the prospect of going 16-0 and eventually 19-0 with a Super Bowl win right back at the Louisiana dome they were playing in on Sunday.
Fitting, then, that it was White, who couldn’t get his paws on the game-winning catch.
“We obviously did not do a good job in the red zone,” coach Mike Smith told Atlantafalcons.com. “We had many opportunities to score touchdowns and we didn’t do it. We made way too many mistakes to win the football game. We’ve got to play better.”
And far too many to be considered invincible. And they most certainly will have to play better when they next meet the Saints, 18 days later in Atlanta. The divisional rivalry has been extremely one-sided since Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans: The Saints hold an 11-2 spell over the Falcons since 2006 and Smith is just 2-7 vs. New Orleans.
While they still have issues, the Saints are no longer a write-off, at least as by winning four of their past five games they are back in the NFC Wildcard race. The Falcons remain the favourite to win their division and will have at least a share of the best record in their conference, but the invincibility is gone.
The Saints, meanwhile, were quiet and business-like in the days leading up to the contest, recognizing the opportunity that awaited. With their own season on the line, they had a chance to make a statement against an opponent ready to be taken down a notch.
“People in New Orleans circled this date,” Greer said. “To get this win for them is incredible.”