What else would you expect? After all, this is the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. Make it four straight games between the two rivals decided by a field goal, including a pair of those in overtime.
What else would you expect when it comes to the final outcome? Sean Payton owns the Falcons. Payton is now 9-2 against Atlanta in his six years as head coach of the New Orleans Saints. That would be 10-1 were it not for an improbable shank by Garrett Hartley on an easy 29-yard field goal on September 26, 2010 at the Superdome. Payton is now an impressive 5-1 against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
Payton is an aggressive, gambling-style coach. His players feed off of this aggressiveness, deriving confidence from it. Clearly, it has worked to the tune of two NFC Championship game appearances, a pair of NFC South Division titles, three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl Championship.
The Saints appear poised to make it three consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since Jim Mora took the black and gold to the playoffs in three consecutive years from 1990 through 1992. It would mark just the second time that the Saints have reached the playoffs in three consecutive seasons in franchise history.
The Saints seized control of the NFC South with their 26-23 overtime win at Atlanta. At 7-3, the Saints get a much needed bye. That will enable the likes of Jonathan Vilma, Turk McBride, Patrick Robinson and Chris Ivory to heal up while other walking wounded players will return to near 100 percent before taking on three straight tough opponents in the Giants, Lions and a date at Nashville against Tennessee.
Atlanta still comes to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26. Will they still be in the race? The Falcons are a game-and-a-half behind the Saints.
Tampa Bay is now 4-5. The Buccaneers are not very good. The Saints are done with them, splitting a pair of games against the Bucs. Carolina is at least a year away from competing for a playoff spot.
Here are my takes on the big win over Atlanta.
**Roman Harper played his best game of the season. The safety now has a team high 6.5 sacks on the season. He was in on 13 tackles, all over the field of the Georgia Dome. Of course, he should have put the game away but dropped an interception prior to Matt Bryant tying the game and sending it to overtime with a field goal.
**On the other hand, Malcolm Jenkins has regressed from 2010. A year ago, Jenkins looked like a budding star. This year, his star has faded. Jenkins once again exhibited poor tackling skills against the Falcons, blatantly missing a pair of tackles in the open field, one of which resulted in a touchdown by Jason Snelling. In 10 games, Jenkins has 41.5 tackles and a forces fumble. He has broken up five passes. He has no interceptions. Those are hardly the numbers of a star player. Jenkins needs to ramp up his play in the second half of the season if the Saints are to be a viable, serious Super Bowl contender.
**Jabari Greer played his best game of the season. Clearly, he is the team's best corner. Greer kept Roddy White quiet, holding the Falcons' star to four catches for 62 yards and broke up several passes, none more important than a potential game-winner to White on Atlanta's game-tying drive in the final seconds of regulation.
**While seemingly everyone still grumbles about Scott Shanle, the veteran showed why he is still on the field, rather than Will Herring, Martez Wilson or anyone else. Shanle had 7.5 tackles and came up with a huge interception, setting up a John Kasay field goal in the fourth quarter.
**Speaking of Kasay, he has done a solid job in place of the injured Hartley. The 42-year old Kasay is 18-of-22 (82%) on field goals. He has not missed inside of 40 yards (16-of-16). Though he missed a 40-yard field goal against the Falcons, that was negated by Matt Bryant missing a 41-yard field goal, snapping a streak of 30 consecutive made field goals.
**Having Sean Payton on the sideline makes a difference. His players feed off of him. His fiery personality is palpable. His ability to get more involved is a plus. Seeing him move to wherever the ball was during the game was inspiring. Watching him gesture with one of his crutches was uplifting. His Saints have now won 10 straight games in November, an impressive streak.
**Even in the midst of a shaky performance, Jimmy Graham remains a force. Graham, who has become the focal point of opposing defenses, caught seven passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in which he bent the goal post with his patented dunk over the cross bar. Graham had two drops and a critical holding penalty which negated a Kasay field goal and forced the Saints to punt, resulting in the Falcons kicking a field goal to force overtime. Let's not forget that this guy is in his second season and hardly played football in college. The best is yet to come.
**Marques Colston had one of his best games in a Saints' uniform. Colston caught everything thrown his way, finishing with eight catches for 113 yards. Many of his catches were into his outstretched hands. Others were in traffic when he absorbed vicious licks. He made clutch plays, converting crucial third-downs all afternoon. Colston is well on his way to a Pro Bowl season. He is a sure-fire Saints Hall of Fame player.
**The Saints kept Michael Turner in check, other than a 21-yard run. Turner finished with 22 carries for 96 yards. You can live with that production if you are New Orleans.
**Drew Brees was brilliant. Without any running game, Brees was efficient, accurate and clutch. Despite suffering through as many as four drops, Brees connected on 30-of-43 passes (70%) for 322 yards and two scores with no interceptions. Brees is now alone in second place, having throw touchdown passes in 37 consecutive games. He passed Brett Favre (36) and trails only Johnny Unitas (47). Brees now has 30 consecutive games with 20 or more completions. He is an elite quarterback and he carried the Saints in this game. He now has the most passing yards in the first 10 games of an NFL season in league history with 3,326 yards, averaging 332.6 yards per game.
**Who says you need to run the ball to win? The Saints had just 16 rushes for 41 yards (2.6 avg.). The 16 rushes match the fewest number of rushing attempts in a Saints' victory in team history. In 38 years of overtime games in the NFL, the Saints are just the 13th team to win in an extra period when rushing for 50 or fewer yards. Bottom line--you need to run the ball effectively to be a consistent winner but if you are struggling to run the ball, why continue to try to do it and waste plays when you have an elite quarterback who completes 70 percent of his passes, you are playing indoors and you are having success throwing the football? There was no better call than the 12-yard pass to Jed Collins by Brees to the Atlanta 14-yard line in overtime. That is vintage Sean Payton. The Saints were already in field goal range but they refused to settle for a field goal of over 40 yards, which, as we have detailed, presents a bit of a problem for Kasay. He is money inside of 40. The pass to Collins ensured a victory. By the way, Mark Ingram had two good, hard runs which produced 11 yards on the game-winning drive. That is what you need from a first-round draft pick.
**Despite one shanked punt, Thomas Morstead is having a Pro Bowl year. The guy pinned the Falcons back to their 1-yard line and 6-yard line with a pair of rugby-style punts and added five more touchbacks on kickoffs.
**The Falcons did a good job of taking Darren Sproles away. Clearly, they game-planned against Sproles, who had just three yards from scrimmage. Atlanta also took the Saints' screen game away.
**It was good to see Robert Meachem emerge. The guy has been invisible in recent games and has just 27 receptions on the year in 10 games. His 36 yard touchdown catch was huge. He went up and got it in traffic on a great throw by Brees. He made another outstanding catch for 33 yards. That is what a first-round draft pick should look like.
**The Saints won despite allowing 481 yards of offense to Atlanta. Despite bending, the New Orleans defense did a good job overall, other than the poor tackling on the Snelling touchdown and the poor job on the Falcons' game-tying drive where the middle of the field was wide open for Harry Douglas, who caught consecutive 23-yard passes and then another in the middle of the field for 20 yards to set up Bryant's game-tying field goal.
Finally, Mike Smith deserves to be second-guessed. His respect for Drew Brees is totally understandable but going with an on-side kick with 4:13 to play with two timeouts and the two-minute warning remaining was shaky at best. The Saints should have put the game away. Graham's penalty negated a huge field goal. As for the decision to go for it on fourth-and-one at his own 29 in overtime, if Turner makes it, he is a genius. By not making it, he is an idiot. What about the play call? A slow-developing run with Turner against a goal-line, gap-shooting defense? You needed about a foot for the first-down. What about a sneak with Matt Ryan with the fullback pushing him forward?
**You cannot give an opponent the ball at the 29-yard line in overtime. On the other hand, he simply felt that his team could not hold Brees at that stage. Bill Belichick does the same thing in 2009 against the Colts on fourth-and-two from his own 28-yard line with 2:08 to play in the game. He falls short but most simply call him him daring despite Indianapolis taking advantage and winning the game en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Of course, he had three Super Bowl titles on his resume. Payton may have done the same thing. Of course, he likely would have passed, keeping the ball in the hands of his best player. The Saints defense won at the line-of-scrimmage at the most pivotal point in the game. That's how close games are won. By making the decisions, Smith had the look of a desperate coach. When Payton or Belichick do it, they are simply daring, arrogant. That's the difference of having Super Bowl skins on the wall.
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