ATLANTA -- Drew Brees and other members of the New Orleans Saints railed against the NFL's practice of playing Thursday night games after all of the momentum they had built up in their outstanding 2017 season was at least temporarily derailed by a midweek trip to Atlanta.
New Orleans' 20-17 loss to the rival Atlanta Falcons was filled with many of the negatives that people associate with Thursday games: A slew of injuries, a barrage of penalties, and a lack of offensive rhythm on both sides -- which saw reigning MVP Matt Ryan throw three interceptions to the Saints before Brees coughed up a chance to win the game with an ill-advised interception of his own in the end zone in the final minutes.
"I shouldn't have thrown it," Brees said of his second-and-10 throw, which was intercepted by linebacker Deion Jones with 1 minute, 25 seconds remaining in the game.
"Guy made a nice play, but not worth taking the risk right there, especially when you know you've got points [in the form of a possible game-tying field goal]," said Brees, who tried to force the ball to tight end Josh Hill in traffic but didn't throw it high enough. "Just disappointed in the result there. Just should not have taken that chance."
Until that point, Brees had thrown five TD passes and zero interceptions when trailing in the fourth quarter this season. And the Saints had been winning the turnover battle 3-0 on the night.
"You feel like you have control of the game, and you can't finish it. That's not good," Saints running back Mark Ingram said. "I feel like we're a great team. I feel like we can accomplish everything we want to accomplish. We've just gotta be able to finish."
The Saints (9-4) will get that chance when they host this same team in two weeks in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They still control their playoff path in the NFC South, thanks to a season sweep of the Carolina Panthers (8-4). But they'll need to get revenge on the Falcons (8-5) to make sure they maintain it.
Unfortunately, the Saints will have an even harder time now catching the NFC's top two seeds, Philadelphia and Minnesota (both 10-2).
The only good news to come out of Thursday's mess is that the Saints now get 10 days to heal after it felt like a player was being assisted off the field on every other drive.
Thursday's game started to go downhill for the Saints when sensational rookie running back Alvin Kamara left the game with a concussion on the opening drive. As the game went on, linebacker A.J. Klein (groin), safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin), defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle) and guard Senio Kelemete (concussion) all left the game, and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. left the game late with an unspecified injury. Ingram, receiver Michael Thomas, Hill and defensive tackle David Onyemata each left the field temporarily with injury issues as well. And rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore went to the sideline several times for oxygen while battling an illness.
Brees, Saints coach Sean Payton and others didn't hide their disdain for the risk of physical harm inherent in playing Thursday games. "It's 100 percent a product of playing on Thursday night," Brees said.
But the Saints were also frustrated by several officiating calls that piled up, as well, as they finished with a total of 11 penalties for 87 yards. The Falcons had nine first downs by penalty -- including one on an early scoring drive that was kept alive by a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty against defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. The Saints also had a field goal wiped off the board at the end of the first half by an alignment penalty -- which left Payton livid.
“Listen, I've never seen anything like it. I've never been a part of a game like that,” said Payton, whose frustration spilled over into his own unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yelling at officials in the field in the final minutes as Atlanta was running out the clock.
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan repeatedly said he didn't want to be "condescending toward some of the calls that were made" or complain, but he couldn't resist a few jabs -- including that some of the calls felt like they were being called in from a "Buffalo Wild Wings commercial."
"Without being too frustrated, without saying we were robbed, without saying we were a better team ... you clearly understand that I felt like we were in control of the game," said Jordan, who later added, "I'm not saying it was red or gold, it was clearly black and white."
Payton repeatedly credited the Saints' defensive effort and fight to stay in the game -- led by interceptions by Lattimore, veteran safety Chris Banjo and rookie safety Marcus Williams over the course of three straight drives in the second and third quarters.
And players repeatedly insisted that they'll come swinging back from the knockdown.
"This is a gutsy loss," Vaccaro said. "To play like they played to the end with guys out from every part of the defense, I thought it brought our team closer. I think this loss is gonna do more good than bad."