*AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a day-after look at the Falcons' 27-24 win over the Saints in which Atlanta went into a hostile Superdome environment and came out with a narrow victory over the Super Bowl champs, thanks to kicker Matt Bryant's late field goal in overtime. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Way back in Week 1, Atlanta head coach Mike Smith made a decision that many questioned.
Late in the fourth quarter of a game where points where at a premium, Atlanta pieced a drive together that culminated in a fourth-and-1 on the Pittsburgh 5-yard line.
With Atlanta trailing 9-6, the decision was to go for the tie or try to take the lead in what appeared to be the last chance Atlanta would have so close to the Steelers goal line.
Smith sent out kicker Matt Bryant, whose 23-yard field goal tied the game, but the head coach was asked after the loss in overtime why he didn't go for it.
"It was an opportunity to tie the game," Smith said. "We felt like there was enough time that we could potentially get a stop."
Smith played the percentages then and while his team tied the game, many questioned if that was too conservative of a call.
Fast forward two weeks and Smith, with nerves of steel, called not one, not two, but three ultra-aggressive fourth down attempts on the road in yet another hostile environment.
Deep in a clock-eating drive in the second quarter, Atlanta's drive appeared stalled at the New Orleans 26. On fourth-and-2, Smith went for it. Not only did he go for it, he passed, giving quarterback Matt Ryan the go-ahead to connect with wide receiver Roddy White for a 7-yard completion.
Four plays later, the decision was there again.
On fourth-and-2 at the New Orleans 11, Ryan connected with tight end Tony Gonzalez who leaped into the air to bring down the pass before spinning twice to gain a few extra yards.
In the fourth quarter, Smith went for it again, this time on fourth-and-6, but failed to convert.
Each time, Smith felt his attacking style came with good reason.
"I felt very confident in moving the ball in the drive right before the half," Smith said following the game. "We knew that they were going to get the ball back and receive the opening kickoff in the second half, so we wanted to try and get a touchdown out of that drive. We felt very confident in the offense. During the fourth quarter when it was fourth-and-6, we were about at the 37-yard line and I felt like we had a play that we had for that situation. We got the match that we wanted and the ball was tipped down at the line of scrimmage. I felt like if you (punt) it in the end zone there, you're only giving up 17 yards of field position. That was the thought process on those situations during the game."
Football players are as competitive as they come, and if you ever come across an offensive player that doesn't want to go for it on fourth down, he's likely to be one that won't last long at the highest levels.
But head coaches have to be a little pragmatic, balancing the game's percentages and field position with the messages he's subtly sending his team by his play calling.
On Sunday, the message was heard loud and clear by Smith's players: We're here to win this game, not because we want to, but because we can.
Evidence of that message was found in Ryan's calm, precise play throughout the game and the sheer force of the offensive line late in the contest as the running game came alive.
"I told the guys that you've got to fight through adversity to win games in this league," Smith said of his team's perseverance. "I can't tell you how proud I am of the men in our locker room and the members of our football team. We fought our tails off (Sunday). That was a hard fought game. It went well beyond 60 minutes, (it went) almost 75 minutes. I like the effort that our team put out (Sunday). I'm very proud of them."
Behind Enemy Lines:What a season Saints kicker Garrett Hartley has had already.
After coming on the scene halfway through last season, Hartley kicked the overtime game-winner in Week 13 to preserve New Orleans' undefeated season. In Week 16, Hartley missed a 37-yard field goal that would have beat the Buccaneers, but the kicker bounced back in the playoffs to hit a 40-yard field goal in overtime that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl.
In the big game, Hartley went 3-for-3 and became the first kicker in Super Bowl history to hit on three field goals of 40 yards or more.
In Week 1, Hartley stumbled, missing two field goals, but New Orleans escaped with a 14-9 victory.
Last Monday, Hartley once again bounced back, going 3-for-3, including the game winner as time expired.
"This guy has got great leg talent," Payton said. "The way he responded for us, not only in the postseason but really in the two years that hes been here, has been real good. It was good to see him bounce back."
After Sunday's loss to the Falcons, a game that saw Hartley with a chance for a second-straight game winner but failed to convert from 29 yards out in overtime, the tune may have changed.
Payton would not comment on his kicker following the game except to say it's reasonable to question why Hartley missed what is considered a makeable kick.
"We are not going to talk about personnel right now," Payton said. "I think it is a fair question. Last week, he played well. He pulled this kick. Certainly, he has got to play better than that but there are a lot of us that have to do a better job."
"Tears of joy Tears of JOY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" exclaimed one fan, summing up a nation of them in beating the Super Bowl champs.
The sense of the fan base leading up to Sunday's game was that the Saints were ripe for the picking, and after Week 2's dismantling of the Cardinals, the Falcons appeared to be ready.
Beyond just a win, the Falcons won on the road, something they haven't show to be able to do consistently in recent years. Beyond winning on the road, it was a win against an elite team, a win that will have everyone talking about the Falcons for at least a week.
It was a statement. It was a question-answerer. It was a doubt-remover.
It was a big win.
Pivotal Play:The game's final possession was huge. The game's final kick is a no-brainer. But perhaps the pivotal play was a series of eight plays leading up to the game-ender.
Sensing a swing in momentum after Hartley's missed field goal and a gassed New Orleans defense, Atlanta ripped off eight straight run plays that burned clock and yards.
Running back Jason Snelling and Michael Turner rushed for 36 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry.
With perhaps all of Atlanta's gambles done for the day, too many pass plays in the game's final drive could have been a disaster formula. Instead, a team that says they're built for the running game, gave it to their bruising backs and let them carry the team into field goal range and ultimately victory.
Statistically Speaking:New Orleans entered Sunday's game with no turnovers on offense, but left with three — two interceptions and a fumble.
It was the first time since Week 10 of last season that Brees has thrown two interceptions in one game.
Even more impressive than the two picks alone is when they came. Atlanta took away two of Brees' first eight pass attempts. Before that Brees had attempted 241 passes without a takeaway.
And don't look now but that's your Atlanta Falcons tied for the league lead with six interceptions through three weeks.
That's A Wrap:And exhale.
The Falcons will enjoy this win for 24 hours before turning their heads to Sunday's home game against the San Francisco 49ers.
San Francisco comes to town more than a little upset having lost two straight, in Week 2's Monday night nail biter to the Saints and then Week 3's 31-10 drubbing of the surprising 3-0 Chiefs.
Last season Atlanta's offense burst out for a 45-10 road win against the 49ers and the offense appears to be clicking on similar cylinders entering Week 4.
The Falcons will need to continue to handle the increased exposure load. With two straight impressive wins, the media spotlight could be brightening on Atlanta.
"As I told the guys in the locker room over there, we want to know how our guys appropriately handle victory and defeat," Smith said following Sunday's win. "We had an opportunity after week one to see how we handle defeat. We had an opportunity after week two to have victory and adulation. We've got to keep that in mind. It's a long season. Sixteen games is hard fought."