In the season opener between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, the game was decided with less than a minute left. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw from the New Orleans three-yard line on fourth-and-goal, but safety Kenny Vacarro tipped the ball into the hands of teammate Roman Harper. Thus, Atlanta's season started on the wrong foot with a 23-17 loss.
When the 2-8 Falcons faced the 8-2 Saints this time, Mike Smith's team didn't seem to want to wait for the Saints to decide it -- Atlanta seemed bent on losing this one all on its own. Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high five times, the Falcons came away with just one touchdown despite four possessions with at least one play inside the New Orleans 22-yard line, and head coach Mike Smith made what may have been his most questionable in-game call in a career full of them.
With 2:24 left in the game, Atlanta had fourth-and-15 at the Saints' 34-yard line, down 17-13. Most everyone assumed that this was a four-down drive, but Smith went a different way. He called his offense off the field and sent kicker Matt Bryant out to attempt a 52-yard field goal. Bryant made the first try, but Saints coach Sean Payton had called a last-second timeout to ice Bryant, and the kicker missed the follow-up. The 17-13 score stuck, and everyone in Georgia was left questioning Smith's thought process.
"There's not a lot of fourth-and-14s." Smith said. "We thought that the field goal -- we had about 2:28 left, and a timeout before the two-minute warning. The two-minute warning is a timeout, and we're going to have an opportunity to get the ball back and only have to kick a field goal to win. Matt Bryant has kicked a lot of clutch field goals for us, and given us an opportunity."
But the Saints didn't give the ball back when they got it -- perhaps the Falcons would have tried an onside kick, but a team that now stands at 2-9 after coming so close to a Super Bowl last season had its failures perfectly characterized in one play.
Atlanta's defense was able to prevent the Saints from making their usual high number of explosive plays, which may have played into Smith's decision. Drew Brees was able to engineer just two plays over 20 yards all night, but New Orleans killed the Falcons with a series of paper cuts, contradicting Atlanta's blitzes with screen passes and draws, and carving up their zone coverages with perfectly-times passes to tight end Jimmy Graham, who finished with five catches on seven targets for 100 yards and a touchdown. Brees and Payton understood that the Falcons were coming after their passing game, and they had the right plan. Brees completed 22 of 33 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, passing Warren Moon to become the NFL's fifth-best career yardage passer in the process.
"We knew what type of game it was going to be -- nine of our last 12 games with these guys have come down to the last possession," Brees told Alex Flanagan of the NFL Network after the game. "Sure enough, it did again today. They're a great football team, no matter what their record might say, and we knew that. Anytime you go on the road in the division, it's hard to get a win. We played very well on both sides of the ball, gritted it out, and got the win."
The difference for the Saints this season, and the factor that makes them more dangerous than they've been since their Super Bowl-winning season of 2009, is a Rob Ryan-led defense that has been every bit as opportunistic as the team's offense. After the Falcons went 76 yards in 10 plays on their opening drive and ended it with a Steven Jackson one-yard run, they never saw the end zone again.
"They played great tonight -- got the big turnover when the Falcons were in scoring position, held them to that long field goal, which they missed, and we were able to run the clock out," Brees said of his defense. "So, complementary football by our offense and defense."
That turnover was perhaps the play of the game. With 13:07 left remaining, receiver Darius Johnson fumbled at the Saints' 22-yard line, and New Orleans recovered. Once again, the Falcons' ability to sustain drives was rendered meaningless by the abilities of their opponents to make bigger plays Atlanta just can't. Cornerback Corey White, replacing the injured Jabari Greer, redeemed himself for some early coverage blunders by recovering the fumble. But linebacker Keyunta Dawson caused the turnover with an impressive effort -- he started off rushing Ryan off left tackle, but broke off the quick pass and got upfield in a big hurry to force the fumble.
Ryan could do no more. He completed 30 of 39 passes for 292 yards, but couldn't manage a single touchdown pass. He came into this game with more total pressures than any other NFL quarterback (172, which constituted 40.2 percent of his dropbacks) and he was blistered by Ryan's defense all night. Linemen Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan were the stars in that regard -- Jordan had 2.5 sacks and Hicks grabbed 1.5 of his own -- and the right side of Atlanta's offense line had absolutely no answer for what Ryan was dialing up. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and right guard Garrett Reynolds were beaten ceaselessly, making Jordan and Hicks even more impressive than they usually are. And given Jordan's status as one of the NFL's best 3-4 ends, that's saying something.
In the end, this was about Atlanta's conservative offense coming back to bite it. The Falcons controlled the clock for over 33 minutes, but could only watch in desperation as the Saints ran out the clock when possession most counted. The field goal decision was magnified by another call that led to three points instead of seven for Atlanta -- with 3:28 left in the first half, Ryan scrambled from the New Orleans 10-yard line and had half a shot at a touchdown -- linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Roman Harper were closing in, but Ryan slid at the four-yard line to a cascade of boos from the home crowd. The 24-yard field goal just left those fans wondering what might have been.
In this game, in that one scramble, with that field goal decision, and throughout the entire season, Mike Smith's team laid up when it should have been shooting for the flag. And this is not a league that rewards the risk-averse.