By Don Banks
December 28, 2010

Things we learned from watching the Saints' riveting defeat of the Falcons in the Georgia Dome Monday night ...

1. No one can afford to overlook the defending champs now. In reality, this game won't change the outcome of either the NFC South race or the fight for the conference's top seed. Atlanta (12-3) will still claim both by beating a woeful 2-13 Carolina team next week in the dome, and New Orleans will have to content itself with a wild-card berth and taking to the road in the postseason.

But that doesn't mean Monday night was meaningless. Far from it. Besides putting the Saints (11-4) back into the playoffs for the third time in coach Sean Payton's five seasons, New Orleans ' gritty win announced to the rest of the NFL that it intends to make more than a token defense of its hard-earned Super Bowl title. Oh, and in the process, the Saints just punctured a little of Atlanta 's air of invincibility at home.

It's pretty obvious why getting that task accomplished was important to the Saints: Because they could easily be right back in the Georgia Dome in three weeks, facing the top-seeded Falcons in the NFC divisional round as a road underdog. Beating the Falcons and snapping its eight-game winning streak served notice that the tough-minded and battle-tested Saints can once again win anywhere, against any opponent.

Though it wasn't an artistic type of victory for New Orleans, it was still beautiful all the same. Atlanta entered the night 19-1 at home when quarterback Matt Ryan started a game, and the Falcons were 6-0 this season in their dome, with only three home losses since 2008. With the win, the Saints planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the Falcons, who had come to believe that the game would always last just long enough for Ryan to find a way to win it.

After all, Atlanta had won 24 consecutive games once it had a fourth-quarter lead, dating to 2008. But not this time. The Saints played with resilience and a whatever-it-takes mentality, never giving in to Atlanta 's home-field mojo. New Orleans led 10-0 in the second quarter, gave the lead back at 14-10 in the fourth quarter, then got a clutch 90-yard touchdown drive from quarterback Drew Brees to win it in late-game, comeback fashion.

After trading three-point wins in each other's domes, there's really only a whisker's worth of difference between these two quality programs. But the Saints' playoff success of last season gives them a potential psychological edge against Atlanta, and New Orleans only reinforced its growing reputation for being able to handle the biggest of pressure situations by going into one of the NFL's toughest venues and living to tell. If there is a Round 3 in three weeks, the Saints just reminded us that being the league's defending champ could wind up mattering more than being the division's reigning champ.

2. With one week to go in the regular season, the NFC playoff bracket is now almost in place. The Saints' win made them the fourth NFC team to clinch a playoff berth, joining the Falcons, Bears and Eagles. That leaves Week 17 to settle whether the Rams or Seahawks will win the NFC West's stumble to the finish, and who will emerge with the conference's second wild-card berth.

In the three-team wild-card race between the Packers, Giants and Bucs, Green Bay (9-6) is in the most commanding position. Currently seeded sixth in the NFC, the Packers are in the playoffs with a win over the NFC North champion Bears Sunday at Lambeau Field. They don't need help from anyone to make it two consecutive playoff trips and three in four years.

The reeling Giants (9-6), the team Green Bay just humiliated at Lambeau, need a win at Washington, plus a Bears victory over Green Bay. Sure, the Bears will be playing hard, given they still have a shot at a first-round bye and homefield advantage in the NFC. But the Packers are hitting on all cylinders right now and are favored to win in another must-win playoff-like atmosphere at Lambeau.

As for Tampa Bay, the Saints' victory hurt its playoff hopes the most. The Bucs (9-6) will need to win at New Orleans -- no easy feat -- and then get losses by the Giants and Packers in order to advance. Tampa Bay 's season isn't officially over, but it's on life support and fading fast.

3. Drew Brees should prepare for teams to blitz the daylights out of him from here on out. Baltimore had pretty good success with that approach in its 30-24 defeat of the visiting Saints last week, and Atlanta, even in defeat, successfully followed the Ravens' blueprint. The Falcons blitzed Brees approximately 40 times, with pretty good results.

Brees finished 35 of 49, for 302 yards passing and one touchdown, but the constant pressure from the Falcons' defensive front forced Brees into two fourth-quarter interceptions, one of which was returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Chauncey Davis. That gave Brees 21 interceptions in 15 games this season, his career-high in that department.

Atlanta sacked Brees just once, but they hurried him constantly, and were pretty effective at limiting the damage the Saints did with their downfield passing game. The longest completion went for 25 yards to Robert Meachem, mostly because Brees simply didn't have a lot of time to let his receivers' routes fully develop.

The Saints' short passing game was effective, but Atlanta forced New Orleans to be more patient and methodical than it would have liked, taking smaller bites of the apple instead of the larger chunks that Brees and Co. have been known for. In the first half, Brees completed 20 of 26 passes, but for just 135 yards, 5.2 yards per pass attempt.

Before their game-winning, 90-yard touchdown drive, the Saints had six consecutive possessions ending in four punts and two fourth-quarter interceptions. Prior to Brees saving his best for last, the Saints had only scored on a short-field touchdown drive set up by a Falcons second-quarter fumble, and a 52-yard Garrett Hartley field goal.

The Saints won and Brees delivered when it mattered most, so you can't say Atlanta's blitz-happy defensive strategy was a total success. But I'm sure opposing defenses would rather take their chances with New Orleans having to throw 49 times to generate just 17 points, believing they'll eventually force Brees into some game-changing mistakes.

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