By Michael Rosenberg
November 30, 2012

ATLANTA -- Drew Brees has had so many great days in the NFL. This may have been his worst. He lost to the game to the rival Falcons. He lost the ball on five different plays. He lost his 54-game touchdown streak. He lost his dream to play a Super Bowl home game. He lost the chance to take the Vince Lombardi Trophy from Roger Goodell.

He even lost track of time. That was the most baffling thing, at least to me. It happened at the end of the first half. The game had not started well for the Saints. In the first quarter, they gave up one long run after another. I saw better tackling at Hector Camacho's funeral. But here were the Saints, down at the Atlanta 5, just before halftime, the moment when the great quarterbacks separate themselves.

The Saints had no timeouts. Brees would remember looking up and seeing 17 seconds on the clock. He figured he could throw a short pass to Darren Sproles, then spike the ball if Sproles didn't score. He was half right. He got the ball to Sproles, looked up and all of a sudden this was not a football game, but that dream when you go to school naked.

"Honestly, I thought we had more time than we did," Brees said afterward. "That's my mistake. That can't happen. That was on me."

He rushed to spike the ball but the half ended. It was the kind of thing that should never, ever happen in the NFL. It almost makes you wonder if the team even has a coach.

Oh. Right.

We may never know how much the Saints' bounty scandal cost them this year. Would they have started 0-4 with Sean Payton as their coach? Did the suspensions and lawsuits and accusations sap their energy? Let's just say this: It could not have helped. And maybe the Saints brought that on themselves or maybe they didn't -- that's a whole other discussion.

But there is a small difference between greatness and mediocrity in the NFL. The Saints planned on one and ended up with the other.

Brees said afterward that he believes the Saints have a great team. Well, that team is 5-7. And if Brees is honest -- and he was extremely, charmingly honest Thursday night -- the Saints would be 7-5 if he had played better the last two weeks. He had two interceptions returned for touchdowns against the 49ers. Then Thursday -- playing one of those made-for-TV games on three days rest that tells you how worried the NFL really is about player safety -- Brees threw five interceptions.

At the end of a lost game in a lost season, he already had filed in order. No. 1 was a bad throw. No. 2 was bad luck. No. 3 was a bad decision. No. 4 was tipped at the line. No. 5 too aggressive. Put it all together, and what do you have? Who cares?

"The fact is, there was five of them," Brees said. "That's never happened to me."

Brees will be disheartened when he reads the epitaph for this season and discovers he wrote it.

"A couple of critical mistakes today that ended up costing us the game," he said. "I'm OK saying that. I have to hold myself accountable."

He remains one of the NFL's great gentlemen, one of the most unlikely figures to get ensnared in a sports scandal. He was never accused of anything, but he took his shots at the commissioner. He felt his team was wronged. Now the stark reality is this: The Super Bowl will be in New Orleans, but New Orleans will not be in the Super Bowl. I still don't envy Goodell's security team that week, but at least the Saints won't be on stage at the circus.

It will be somebody else's show on Bourbon Street. And the Falcons continue to state their case, in a kinda-sorta way. They got five interceptions from Brees and barely won. They beat Tampa Bay by a point, Carolina by two, Oakland by three, Arizona by four, Dallas and Denver by six ... what does this mean?

It means the Falcons are 11-1. But nobody will look at them like we would look at an 11-1 Patriots team or 11-1 Steelers team. Their playoff history is too shaky. Their record seems too sketchy.

I'm a big believer in close wins -- I think they help players stay calm and disciplined when the playoff pressure arrives, because they have already come through in so many tight situations. But if the playoffs started today, would you take the Falcons over the 49ers? Would you want them over Eli Manning and the Giants?

"One thing I've learned in my five years in the NFL," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said afterward, "if you worry about what you're doing in January in September, October, November, December, you're wasting your time."

He is right. But the rest of us remember those Januarys. We remember the Falcons folding, and we remember the Saints making their Super Bowl run.

Brees said before the game the NFC South is the Saints' division, and both teams know it. He was asked about that afterward, and he smiled. He said he knows the Falcons will win the division this year, but he still feels like it belongs to the Saints. A lot seemed like it belonged to the Saints. Not much belongs to them anymore.

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