For Sean Payton, this moment proved to be worth the wait. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
The New Orleans Saints did their level best to play football in 2012 without two things they desperately needed: Head coach Sean Payton and a defense that approached league average. With Payton back from his season-long suspension related to the BountyGate scandal, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan replacing Steve Spagnoulo, the Saints that beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-17, at the Superdome Sunday looked a lot more like the Saints of yore -- especially on the goal-line stand that decided the game.
The Falcons started their final drive of the game at their own 20-yard line with 3:12 left in the game, and Matt Ryan moved the ball decisively to the Saints' 7 with five straight completions. But from there, Atlanta couldn't push the ball in. There was an incomplete pass to Harry Douglas on first down, a four-yard pass to Roddy White on second down, a pass over the middle to halfback Steven Jackson that should have been caught for a touchdown and wasn't on third down and two New Orleans defensive backs combined to end the game on Ryan's last chance.
Ryan tried to hit Tony Gonzalez in the end zone, but rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped the ball from the future Hall of Fame tight end, and veteran safety Roman Harper came down with the decisive pick. It was a huge turnaround for a defense that gave up an NFL record 7,042 yards last year. New Orleans gave up 367 yards in this game, but in the end its defense was on the right side of the point total.
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One thing that wasn't different from last season -- Saints quarterback Drew Brees was efficient when he needed to be, completing 26-of-35 passes for 357 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The Falcons actually had a 10-0 lead at one point in the game, but again, the Saints' defense was able to constrict when it was required. Pass rush, a concern all offseason, was not an issue. Ryan was sacked three times and hit on six occasions, and New Orleans forced two fumbles. The only score after that early Falcons run came by way of a four-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Julio Jones in the third quarter.
One additional source of inspiration for the Saints -- former player Steve Gleason, who has been battling ALS for years, led the pregame festivities: