The most important moment of the Atlanta Falcons' 2012 season may have come before the 2011 season even ended.
On Jan. 17, 2012 -- a good two weeks before the Giants downed the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI -- the Falcons named Mike Nolan as their new defensive coordinator. With Atlanta moving to 11-1 on Thursday night by absolutely working over Drew Brees and the Saints' offense, it's hard to find any fault in that decision.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees started this Week 13 showdown in the midst of an NFL record streak for most games with a touchdown pass. That 54-outing run came to an end Thursday, with Brees instead forced into the first five-interception effort of his career by Nolan's aggressive, play-making group.
"It was a great game played by our defense," Falcons QB Matt Ryan said. "Our defense came out here and created five turnovers. We came out hot on offense ... but our defense kept us in it."
Way back in Week 2 of this season, Nolan announced to the NFL world this Atlanta defense might be more formidable than its past forms by forcing Peyton Manning into a three-INT night. The Falcons since have done a number on Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and, now, Brees. All but Brees from that group threw for less than 210 yards against the Falcons' defense.
Brees hit 341 yards Thursday, his highest total since Week 6 and third-best mark this season. It mattered little.
"Oddly enough," Brees said, "I felt as good coming into this game as I've felt all season, really -- about the passing game, about throwing it, about our plan, about the scheme."
Atlanta's shot at a perfect season ended in Week 9, when Brees threw three touchdown passes in a 31-27 Saints win. This time around, Brees never found a groove, even when his team rallied from a 17-0 hole to within 17-13.
Garrett Hartley's 52-yard field goal with 3:52 left in the third quarter would stand as the Saints' last points. Brees threw three interceptions after that point.
"I'm always worried, come on, why wouldn't I be? Look at what's happened to us in the past, where we've jumped out to leads and weren't able to close them out," said ageless Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, who reeled in the game's second score. "We almost let it slip away at the end, but hey, it wouldn't be us if we didn't."
With the win the Falcons secured at least a share of the NFC South -- they can clinch Sunday if Tampa Bay loses, or with a win or Bucs loss over the season's final four weeks.
Getting past New Orleans in front of a national-TV audience was as critical for the Falcons' swagger, though, as it was for the standings. The Falcons are well aware that their reputation is for being a smoke-and-mirrors team -- one that thrives during the regular season, only to implode in the playoffs.
Stealing NFC South superiority back from the Saints was an important hurdle. Next up for Atlanta: clinching the division, setting its sights on the conference's top seed and, finally, excelling in the postseason.
"It just puts us one step closer," Gonzalez said of the win. "I understand why nobody wants to get on the bandwagon, (why) no one has the stomach to go with us, because of what we've done in the past.
"But I tell you what: We're a good football team. We're going to make it happen this year, hopefully."
If they do, if the Falcons manage to go this season where so many previous Atlanta teams have tried and failed, it will start with defense.
Brees was sacked just once, but constantly had to sidestep pressure and only briefly established any rhythm. He found that groove on New Orleans' lone TD drive, with Atlanta already out front by 17. On three separate occasions during the march, Brees avoided the pass rush and made plays, setting up a Mark Ingram 1-yard TD run.
He appeared to keep his record TD streak alive on the Saints' next possession, too. Unfortunately for Brees and his team, however, a scoring toss to Darren Sproles was wiped out by a Jimmy Graham interference call. Brees came within a fingernail of pressing his run to 55 games early in the third quarter, but Lance Moore dropped a potential touchdown and the Saints settled for a field goal.
There were enough moments of self-destruction for New Orleans to feel like it let one slip away. The fact that this loss leaves the Saints at 5-7 and on fumes in the playoff race will only exacerbate that notion.
But without the Falcons' omnipresent defense, the Saints may have found an easier path to victory.
Thomas DeCoud started Brees' misery, flying in front of a deep pass to the end zone. William Moore put the finishing touches on it, covering an absurd amount of ground to nab a ball intended for Marques Colston in the closing minutes. In between, Sean Weatherspoon, Jonathan Babineaux and Moore again picked off Brees passes.
"It's extremely disappointing," Brees said. "I pride myself on being a great decision-maker and a guy that's going to help us win the game and not being a detriment by turning the ball over like that.
"A couple of critical mistakes that could cost ourselves the game."
Brees can pin the blame on himself -- and he surely earned criticism for his effort. He's not the first quarterback to hit the wall against Atlanta this season, though. And the groundwork for the Falcons' defensive excellence was laid months ago, when Nolan made the move from Miami to Atlanta.