*AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a day-after look at the Falcons' 17-14 loss to the Saints on Monday night. It was just their third loss of the season, and while disappointing, as Mike Smith said, 15 other teams would gladly take the position the Falcons find themselves in. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Falcons head coach Mike Smith has a reputation for being a pragmatic thinker when it comes to the game of football.
This season, he's also earned a reputation as a bit of a gambler, going for it on fourth down in some crucial situations. He's been right much more than he's been wrong, his choices paying off at an 85 percent clip (11-of-13), best in the NFL.
Monday's night game came down to the wire and another situation when Smith had to put on his poker face presented itself.
Down 17-14 very late in the fourth quarter, the offense stalled and the choice had to be made to go for it on fourth-and-6 or punt it back to Drew Brees and the Saints' offense.
Although Smith appears to be a gambler, his decisions usually come from hours of preparation and consideration of situational scenarios. The gamble he made was just as big as the one many thought he should have made, going for it on fourth down 40 yards away from the wrong end zone.
"Definitely thought it was the right thing to do," Smith after the game. "It was fourth down and 6 with the ball out their 38, 39-yard line maybe even a little bit further out. But on fourth-and-6, we felt like the way that we'd been playing defensively and we had two timeouts and we hopefully could wrap one around the two-minute warning. Unfortunately, we didn't get it done there at the end."
The Falcons gave up two first downs and that was the ball game, but Smith had the right idea. Before a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, Atlanta's defense held the Saints scoreless on six straight possessions.
Ultimately, it comes to the hot hand and the gamble Smith felt had the best odds to get him the results he sought. Two yards made all the difference in the world. On third-and-1, the Falcons allowed Saints running back Pierre Thomas to gain 2 yards to convert, and New Orleans was in victory formation for the final moments.
Behind Enemy Lines:ESPN's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas brings us the story of Jonathan Vilma this morning.
Some of the Saints players were noticed returning to the empty Georgia Dome field after the game and huddling around the Falcons logo at midfield. There was no dancing on the Falcons logo or anything blatantly disrespectful, instead just a photo opportunity for the Saints players.
Yasinskas shares that the linebacker told ESPN's Ed Werder that it wasn't meant to be unsportsmanlike, rather that many of the the New Orleans players take photos to "commemorate significant victories."
Some may not take kindly to the gesture, but the key takeaway is that the Super Bowl champs entered the Georgia Dome knowing their season rode on a win. How long has it been since the Falcons were the hunted?
From the FanCast:The crowd noise wasn't lost on the fans watching from home and in the gameday FanCast.
"12th man got that false start! Woohoo," wrote a fan after a false start penalty on third down went against the Saints, brought back a touchdown and set up defensive end John Abraham's interception.
As this season has continued and the Falcons' home record has grown into near folk-lore status, the one overlooked constant has been the fans and the noise they produce. Always smart fans, they stay quiet when the Falcons are on offense and get loud and proud when the home team's defense is on the field.
Monday night was a prime example of what happens when smart fans — loudly— support a smart team. The noise created the penalty, which has a trickle-down effect.
Statistically Speaking:A few things on interceptions, the biggest guys on the football field and Falcons history.
The interceptions by defensive ends Abraham and Chauncey Davis isn't the first time two defensive linemen snagged picks in a single game for the Falcons. In 1970, Claude Humphrey and John Zook both did it against the Steelers.
Of the Falcons' fourth-best 21 interceptions this season, four have come from the D-line. In addition to Davis and Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann have gotten into the act.
The two picks by Abraham and Davis went a long way toward limiting the damage Brees could do against them. They held him to a QB rating of 77.1, the second lowest of the season for him.
Pivotal Play:As far as game-changers go, there wasn't one much bigger than Davis' interception to end the third quarter. Down 10-7 the game's tempo was decidedly in favor of the team's defenses, each pounding on the other's offense, exercising a physical game plan designed to keep two explosive offenses off the field and out of control of the clock.
When Babineaux knifed through the line and had Brees in his grasps, Davis had to stay disciplined and stay within the play. Instincts tell you to go straight for the sack — help your teammate — but the Falcons had studied Brees all week and knew he'll make something out of nothing. The game plan was to attack and remember that the ball could always come out.
As Babineaux brought down Brees, the quarterback tossed an errant pass that Davis picked off and returned 26 yards for a touchdown.
"Our coaching staff made it clear to the entire defensive line to make it hard on Drew in terms of getting our hands up and forcing him out of the pocket," Davis said. "Consequently, it worked out tonight and we forced two turnovers."
It was pivotal in that it provided a score when scoring was nearly extinct in the game. It also gave the Falcons the lead, ending a third quarter that seesawed back and forth with zeroes on the scoreboard.
It was a huge play and somewhat of a rarity, but oddly something that had been seen by the Falcons before. Week 5 saw Biermann's interception help beat the Browns, a catch also returned for a touchdown.
That's A Wrap: The mood in the locker room was somber late Tuesday morning following Monday night's late loss to the Saints. The Falcons are a prideful bunch, but they're not arrogant to the point of conceit.
They expected to win, but they knew they had to earn it. They also knew they left just enough out on the field to not get the win.
The mood in the locker room was because they lost. It's not because they lost to the Saints or because of the timing of the loss. It'd been a long time since they lost this season. It was a tough loss. They were used to being the team to take wins away. * *
They didn't like the feeling of losing, but they know everything they've worked for is still in sight.
"I don't like losing, period, no matter what the situation is," running back Michael Turner said. "We have two cracks at it. We lost one. Hopefully next week, we bounce back hard."
Next week is the Carolina Panthers, a struggling team, but one that would love nothing more than to diminish the Falcons' season with a loss at the Georgia Dome. On the surface, this is what many will call an "easy win," but the Falcons look at it as nothing more than a "must win."