*Monday night's 17-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints didn't go the way the Falcons planned, but all of their goals are still within reach. With a win in the season's final week they can still secure the NFC South crown and home-field advantage in the playoffs. No loss is a good one, but the Falcons may be able to use the feelings and experiences of the loss to the Saints to forge ahead. *
After eight straight wins, the Falcons found themselves in unfamiliar territory Monday night. In the losing effort, only the team's third of the season, Atlanta has to figure out how to rebound from an emotional low after feeling so many highs this season.
At one point during the nationally-televised game, it appeared the Falcons had found yet another way to pull out a victory this season, using two straight interceptions of Saints quarterback Drew Brees to find new life and a lead in the second half.
The takeaways were as unconventional as they come, the first an interception returned 26 yards for a touchdown by defensive end Chauncey Davis. The second Brees interception was also gathered in by a defensive end, John Abraham, who returned his first career pick 6 yards.
The Davis interception gave Atlanta a 14-10 lead, but after Abraham's takeaway the Falcons offense wasn't able to come away with any points.
As the fourth quarter progressed Atlanta's defense was faced with opportunities to make a stop, but the physical strain of remaining on the field for so long began to take its toll.
"We were in some critical situations, some short-field situations, but that's no excuse for our defense," safety William Moore said. "We've got to come up big. We just came up short on a lot of plays. That was a great quarterback and his experience showed today."
The critical situations included near-miss sacks of Brees. While Atlanta's pressure was significant, they couldn't bring down the Saints quarterback when they had the chances. Much like the game itself, they were often close, but just out of reach.
"That millisecond is what lost the game for us," Abraham said. "The opportunities that we left on the field were what lost the game for us. We want to be a championship team, we want to go all the way — the opportunities out there that we had, we've got to make. You can't keep getting close; that's not enough — especially with a guy like Drew, he's not going to just go down. If you get him close like that, he's still looking at receivers. He is third-and-short, third-and-long, we've got him right where we want him and he's still completing a pass, first down, keeping us on the field."
The resiliency of the 2010 Falcons has been tested repeatedly throughout the season in game situations. Now as they prepare for the final game of the season, a contest that can secure home-field advantage in the playoffs, they must find ways to move on from Monday's tough 17-14 loss.
The game had everything, including a playoff atmosphere and if there's a silver lining it's that Atlanta can experience the taste of defeat under such circumstances.
"I think it was good for them to experience tonight because this was a playoff atmosphere, this game felt like a playoff game, so for us to taste defeat I believe it was good for all of us," linebacker Coy Wire said.
The feelings had by many of the Falcons in the post-game locker room are ones that they'd like to soon forget, but know they'll need in order to avoid future instances of the same.
"We've got a long season ahead of us," Moore said. "I know I never want to feel this feeling again so I know we're going to come back ten times harder."
Moving on often begins with watching the film of the game, something Abraham isn't looking forward to. He described the defense's efforts as uncharacteristic, despite limiting New Orleans' Pro Bowl quarterback to one touchdown and forcing two interceptions.
"I don't even want to watch film because I know it's going to be so terrible," he said. "How we played today is just not how we play. The opportunities that we left out there… We prepared ourselves perfectly for this game. We'll just watch the tape. I know we're going to watch the tape and see some of the stuff that we left out on the field. We gave them stuff. I'm not knocking them but I'm knocking us. We didn't play like we usually do."
Playing like they usually do has resulted in 12 wins for the Falcons this season, but this loss may be as critical as any win. Experiencing the disappointment of a loss this late in the season as they prepare for a playoff run may go a long way for the team.
"I can only hope, and I believe, that we will take the adversity and this bump in the road and allow it to make us stronger and more tight knit as team and will force us into a becoming a better football team than we were before the loss," Wire said. "Every guy on this team will take it and use it as motivation to propel us further than we would have if we won tonight."
The Falcons have shown they're winners and after following up each loss this season with a victory, they'll look to return Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers and carry on that tradition as they prepare for greater things in the playoffs.