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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Saints still own the NFC South

Posted By on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 at 1:51 PM

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Gosh, you almost feel like considering sympathy for Atlanta Falcons fans right now (maybe...not). But boy did Mike Smith and his team really really want to beat the Saints or what? But despite all their best, bold efforts to claim a win against a division opponent at home, Atlanta simply couldn't get over their own best intentions and the Saints escaped the Georgia Dome with a 26-23 win.

Obviously all anyone can talk about is the Falcon's failed decision to go for it on fourth-and-inches deep inside their own territory. The problem is, that wasn't even the craziest play call that Atlanta made in that hour. Statistically speaking, Smith made the right call. But it came after a series of head-scratching decisions Smith made that benefitted the Saints in the fourth quarter.

After Matt Ryan's touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez, the Saints had just a three-point lead with just under five minutes left in the game. Yet instead of trying to stop Drew Brees and the Saints offense (which didn't make mistakes but were far from spectacular on Sunday) the Falcons tried their hand at an onside kick, a tactic that only really works if it's a surprise (ahem), and even then successful onside kicks are a rarity.

The game could've been sealed right then with a successful Saints drive, but Jimmy Graham's holding penalty on the Saints field goal attempt at the end of the ensuing drive negated three crucial points. The Falcons had probably seen enough of Graham, who had 82 receiving yards and a touchdown, and wanted to go for the win. The Falcons ran 13 plays, all of them passes by Matt Ryan, because despite having just under two minutes to travel the length of the field, Atlanta had squandered its timeouts.

None of this is to diminish the Saints' play, especially the defense which stepped up time and again under pressure. The Saints, though, once again looked beatable against an NFC South opponent. Division games are always close, but you don't want to be winning them week after week because your opponents keep shooting themselves in the foot.

It's astonishing that the Falcons all but abandoned their running game when it had worked so well for so long. Say what you will about the Saints perceived problems with offensive balance (not at all helped by Sean Payton calling 43 pass plays to just 16 running plays) but if Payton had a running back that picked up 95 yards through three quarters, like Michael Turner did for the Falcons, Payton would probably give him the ball more than just twice in the final frame with the game on the line.

Not that it matters to the Saints. This was a game that, all things considered, was theirs for the winning for most of the second half. The defense's bend-but-don't-break philosophy, along with an important fourth quarter interception, was just enough to bring the game down to one decisive play. And where Atlanta failed time and again to capitalize on dramatic game-changing moments, the Saints succeeded resoundingly.

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