FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- I must say: My first trip to New Orleans wasn't too shabby. From a personal standpoint, I did every stereotypical NOLA thing there is to do.
Yes, I ate a beignet at Cafe Du Monde (waited 45 minutes for that beautiful sugar-coated delicacy and it was well worth the wait).
Yes, I strolled through the French Quarter, taking in the street performers and artwork and architecture (my Instagram content has never been better).
Yes, I had a hurricane on Bourbon Street (or maybe two… or maybe three… The details here don't really matter).
I say all of that to say this: My trip to New Orleans wasn't nearly as sweet as Atlanta's (even as I tried to eat my body weight in beignets).
The Falcons leave New Orleans with an upset win over the Saints. Atlanta didn't make it easy on itself and there are moments the Falcons probably want back from that fourth quarter, but a win's a win, right? Well, it is in the record book at the very least, and the Falcons enter into the second half of the season at .500.
They head to Dallas at the end of the week, but before we get into the ins and outs of that matchup, let's take one final look at the anxiety-indicting, 27-25 win over divisional rival New Orleans.
"This is what Arthur Smith wants to build."
I said this - and wrote this - at halftime. The Falcons had just capped off one of their best drives of the season with a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead into the locker room.
That 15-play, 92-yard drive that took up five minutes and 30 seconds of possession was *chef's kiss*
It was - by all accounts - what the Falcons needed in that moment.
"To do that before the half, to finish it with the touchdown," Matt Ryan accounted, "I thought that was huge for us."
And let's not forget the role the defense played in the first half either. It was a true bend, but don't break mentality from Dean Pees' unit. It was the exact epitome of his yards-don't-matter-points-do philosophy (and yes, I am paraphrasing here).
The Saints didn't have trouble running the ball on the Falcons, but they did have trouble scoring on the Falcons. This ultimately meant the Falcons shut out the Saints in the first half.
From an entire operational standpoint - all three phases of the game - this first half truly felt like it was the bones and foundation of what Smith and Terry Fontenot want to build in Atlanta.
"When Mr. (Arthur) Blank hired me and Terry," Smith said, "we wanted to be a tough-minded football team."
In that first half, you really saw that vision come to life.
"My God, they needed that."
But that slice of vision-turned-reality didn't last forever, and the Falcons saw their 24-6 lead in the fourth quarter quickly snuff out the good feelings of the first half as the Saints came marching back into the game.
They scored the 25-24, go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute remaining in the game. The Falcons got the ball back with one minute and one second left. They had two timeouts.
And while Ryan said after the game that in the NFL that's plenty of time, the Falcons had to move and move quickly. They did so by hitting Cordarrelle Patterson on the very first play of the drive for a whopping 64 yards.
After the game, Smith said when you get an explosive play to start a drive like that "it certainly makes it easier as a play caller."
And there's a theme here as the Falcons have done this a few times now. When the team was down and the offense had to march down the field and score to win it, explosive plays are what got them the kickstart they needed.
Against the Giants and Dolphins, it was Ryan hitting Kyle Pitts for big gains. On Sunday, it was Ryan to Patterson.
The opposite could be said for the games the Falcons lost, like against the Washington Football Team. The Falcons were without an explosive play in their final offensive drive, and they lost.
It may seem simple, but these final drive explosives are changing the narrative for Atlanta.
"Our mindset is that we're going to finish games," Smith said.
"Let's give the front office their moment."
When the game was over, I asked Smith about the mentality of an offense in wanting the ball in your hands in the final minutes of a game and how that mindset is epitomized in Ryan. Smith said it's not just Ryan with that mindset, it's the entire team. It has to be.
And he made sure the defense got their credit, too, saying the Saints' back-to-back failed two-point conversions were "two huge plays in the game."
But a comment of Smith's that I went back to a couple times after everything was said and done on Sunday night was this one:
"There are a lot of unsung heroes on this football team," Smith said. "…You bring in James Vaughters, he made an enormous play (Sunday). Mike Pennel, he's been pretty solid. Anthony Rush, gosh almighty, he made some good plays."
I thought this was Smith's tip-of-the-hat to Fontenot and the pro personnel side of the Falcons building in Flowery Branch. These three players are guys that have flown under the radar, men the Falcons have essentially picked up off the street during different points over the last couple months. They are three players who Smith said made a difference in the game on Sunday.
That's good news for the Falcons, who are trying to be competitive while staying conscious of their budget. And Vaughters has been a particularly impactful find.
The Falcons have used him quite a bit the last three weeks, finally signing him prior to the Saints game after he was a standard practice elevation for two weeks. And it was a game in which Vaughters came up with a game-changing strip sack.
The Falcons knew this part of their roster management was going to be important, and we're starting to see glimpses as to why.
"These are guys that as you continue to churn the roster," Smith said, "these guys step up."
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