Michael Turner had 106 total yards against the Saints Sunday, but couldn't convert on a key 4th-and-inches in overtime. (AP)
[7-3] Saints 26, [5-4] Falcons 23 (OT)
Box Score | Recap
Surely, Falcons head coach Mike Smith wasn't really going to go for it on fourth down from his own 29 in overtime, right? After a review overturned an Atlanta first down catch and set the Falcons up instead with 4th-and-inches, Smith's decision to send Matt Ryan and his offense back on the field had to be a ploy to try to draw the Saints offside or force them to use a timeout.
Only it turned out to be the real deal. Playing at home, after overcoming a 23-13 deficit late, Smith decided he couldn't trust his defense.
So, instead, Atlanta called a run play up the gut for Michael Turner. New Orleans stuffed it, then kicked the game-winning field goal. The NFC South is now the Saints' to lose, in large part because of Smith's baffling decision to go for the win.
Up until that point another coach was in the crosshairs: New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The crafty Williams lives to bring pressure on opposing QBs from unique defensive looks, but his strategy backfired repeatedly in the closing moments of regulation.
New Orleans led 23-13 and seemed to have the game right where it wanted it, but Williams never took his foot off the gas. And Ryan took advantage of the constant blitzes, chewing up the Saints through the air down the stretch.
He hit Tony Gonzalez for a TD to make it 23-20, then, after a Saints punt pinned the Falcons back on their own 6, Ryan connected with Harry Douglas three times for 66 yards to get into field goal range. All three times, Douglas was criminally open, finding seams in man-to-man coverage as Williams dialed up heat. The Falcons drove deep into Saints territory, tying the game with a field goal as time expired.
But, somehow, Williams' defense stiffened once the game got to overtime.
The Saints stopped Atlanta on the first possession of the extra session, then looked like they had forced a punt again when the Falcons got the ball back.
Smith, though, refused to play the percentages. And as a result, his team finds itself looking up at New Orleans in the NFC South.
In case you needed any reminder how big this game was, Sean Payton provided it. Less than a month removed from surgery to fix the broken tibia and torn meniscus sustained in a brutal in-game collision, Payton returned to the Saints sideline, crutches and all, refusing to spend another afternoon in the coaches' box.
New Orleans, 6-3, had a half-game lead over the 5-3 Falcons entering Sunday. No matter who walked away the Week 10 winner, the direction of the NFC South would be set for the rest of the season.
Now, again, it's the Saints' division to lose. Atlanta will get another crack at New Orleans in Week 16, but that game's in the Big Easy. Maybe that's why Smith opted to go for the throat when he had a chance. The result, however, was disastrous.
The way it happened shouldn't take anything away from this win for New Orleans. Despite never finding any semblance of a running game and surviving all afternoon with a defense that seemed hell-bent on letting Atlanta into the red zone, the Saints came up with just enough plays when it mattered.
Marques Colston again had his fair share, finishing with eight catches for 113 yards -- many of them coming in clutch moments. Jimmy Graham shook off a pair of bad early drops to haul in a TD pass. And Robert Meachem's terrific 33-yard touchdown grab staked the Saints to a 17-13 third-quarter lead.
For as much as New Orleans did wrong Sunday, it did more than enough right to deserve this victory.
The Falcons had their chances, too, and came out strong with an impressive 16-play, nearly nine-minute drive. But that ended, as three promising Atlanta possessions did Sunday, with a field goal.
And that inability to cash in for more made the Falcons' mistakes loom that much larger. The first big one came late at the start of the fourth, when Ryan was picked off, setting up a New Orleans field goal.
The second came on Smith's fateful decision in overtime. There could be some Falcons fans out there who loved the idea to go for it, if not the execution or result. Certainly, giving Brees and his offense a second chance in overtime is not an enviable prospect to face.
The Saints' defense rose to the challenge, taking Williams off the hook in the process. Smith is alone in the spotlight now -- and he might stay there for the rest of the year, if that singular moment in overtime results in New Orleans taking home the NFC South crown.