ATLANTA – That didn't go the way the Falcons planned it.
The home team had firm control over the rival New Orleans Saints in the regular-season opener in front of a massive, raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd that was super into it from the opening kick.
There was reason to cheer. The Falcons were beating the Saints in every phase. They were running the ball well. They were point scorers in the kicking game. They were pressuring the passer at a rate unseen in recent seasons.
Then, well, you know what happened next.
The Saints surged ahead, erased a two-score, fourth-quarter Falcons lead and essentially won it with Will Lutz's 51-yard field goal with 19 seconds left. The whirlwind of explosive plays and Saints scoring came in a massive gust, with enough power to knock the Falcons off their axis.
The Falcons were in command. Then they weren't, passengers unable to stop the Saints attack or generate enough offense to run out the clock with their lead intact. Yeah. It happened that fast.
While the fourth-quarter took some time to absorb, a difficult reality set in motion an important question: What happens next?
How will the Falcons respond? Will one loss impact a second, or will they turn the page quickly and reset? That will be vital as the Falcons move forward.
Can't change what happened on Sunday. What's done is done.
"We can't let this one game define us," running back Cordarrelle Patterson said. "We didn't get the 'W' that we wanted, but we have to keep working hard.
"We'll let this sit for 24 hours, but then we've got to move on to the Rams. We have 16 more games in this season. For me, I don't stress. I don't trip. It's football and sometimes crazy things happen. You can't let one game define you. You have to keep pushing."
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in the first game of 2022.
Can't let it define us.
That was a message was hammered home by leaders interviewed in the postgame locker room. Patterson used the phrase. So did Jake Matthews and Rashaan Evans. Grady Jarrett didn't use that exact phrase but made the same point.
"We have to go back to work. I know I've sat up here and said it before, but it's simple," the defensive tackle said. "We gotta finish the game as a whole team. There's more than one play in the game that determines the outcome. Everybody takes a part in it. That's something we have to know going forward but I'm encouraged because we played hard and had the stadium rocking. It's one of the most excited I've seen the team, with the fans giving us everything they've got. It was beautiful scene today. We want to respond from this loss and continue to stack wins and keep it turnt up like that.
"Unfortunately, we came up short, but there are no excuses. We have to go back to work"
The Falcons were really good at that last season, quickly moving on from difficult losses and following them up with dramatic wins. Look at Weeks 4, 5 and 7 last season. The Falcons lost to Washington in dramatic fashion, then came back and won two straight over the Jets (in London of all places) and Dolphins on the road after a bye.
Matthews didn't think Falcons leadership needed to make a concerted effort to put "don't let it define us' on repeat. The tone has already been set. Falcons captains don't have to make a course correction.
"I'm not worried about that," Matthews said. "We have a great group of guys. I really mean that. We have real pros, and guys who want to play hard for each other. I have been encouraged by seeing all that, so I'm not really worried about what leadership needs to do this week. We're going to continue to work hard and focus on the things that [head coach Arthur Smith] talks about every week."
There's plenty of good to build off, especially with play along both lines of scrimmage in the first three quarters. They ran the ball well, were balanced on offense and affected the passer time and again. They focus on the good while trying to correct mistakes that won't be acceptable down the road.
"We ended up with a loss, but our pride wasn't beat," Evans said. "This is a long season. We understand that one game doesn't define us. We have to get back at it and be better in the fourth quarter, finishing games.
"You have to give kudos to the Saints, but it does leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Hopefully it will be motivation for us going into next week."