ATLANTA – Sean Weatherspoon looked every one of his defensive teammates straight in the eyes before Thursday night's game and encouraged them to play like there was no tomorrow.
The Atlanta Falcons linebacker had delivered plenty of emotional sermons before, including a tearful one at halftime of the Seattle game when he was still on injured reserve. But this time, he was in the line of battle with his teammates in full uniform, prepared to fight right alongside of them.
"Just motivation," Weatherspoon said of this pregame speech. "You get out there and play together, and don't worry about anything else. As long as we have a chance to get on the field, we still feel like we have a chance to help our offense, help win the game. We just talked about playing with a certain energy, man.
"Ultimately, we didn't get the result that we wanted. But we did play with more energy tonight."
Any notion that the Falcons had mailed in the season was put to rest Thursday night, even despite their 17-13 loss to the rival New Orleans Saints. The Falcons played with a sense of urgency despite dropping to a hard-to-imagine 2-9 on the season. They took this game personally, not just because many Saints fans infiltrated the Georgia Dome.
Trying to snap a four-game losing streak and attempting to salvage a dismal season was enough inspiration.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who insisted this week that the team hadn't quit on coach Mike Smith, was asked why the Falcons came out so motivated.
"Because we've been getting embarrassed," Gonzalez said. "I hope that's the reason why. We're a better football team than what we've showed these last [four] weeks. I think the way we played today was back to that old Falcons style of football. Obviously, we didn't come out and win. But I'm happy. I'm encouraged by it.
"And don’t get me wrong -- we still lost. It's a bad taste in our mouths. It's not the outcome that we wanted. We're not accepting it. … We're still disappointed. But at the same time, I'm happy the way we played. If we keep that same attitude, like I said before, things are going to be looking good for us in the future. No doubt."
Progress was watching the defense force a three-and-out on the opening drive and limiting Drew Brees and the Saints to three points in the second half. Progress was the Falcons' offense getting consecutive 8-yard runs from Steven Jackson and the line paving the way for Jackson's 1-yard touchdown plunge on its opening drive.
Progress was having a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, something the Falcons haven't experienced in recent weeks.
"I felt like the effort in the ballgame was good and gave us a chance to win the football game," Smith said. "I like how we started the game. We liked how we started the game. Felt like we played well, in spurts.''
The Falcons might have surged ahead had it not been for an untimely fumble in the red zone by rookie receiver Darius Johnson at the start of the fourth quarter. It was another one of those miscues symbolic of how the season has imploded. But Smith emphasized that the fumble was not why his team lost the game.
There were other gaping holes. The offensive line allowed too much pressure on Matt Ryan, who was sacked a season-high five times. The defense surrendered another handful of explosive plays, including a 44-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on a play that safety William Moore admitted he botched.
Despite those deficiencies, and the costly fumble, the Falcons had a chance in the final minutes. Smith stood behind his decision not to go for a fourth-and-15 from the Saints’ 34-yard line trailing by four with 2:24 left. He opted instead for a 52-yard field-goal try, which Matt Bryant missed after the Saints froze him with a timeout. Smith's thought was to pull to within one with the kick, stop the Saints with three timeouts and then drive for a game-winning field goal.
It didn't work out exactly as planned, but at least the Falcons' effort was spirited.
"I thought that we responded to some momentum changes, to some adversity, in the football game," Smith said. "But still not good enough. When you don't win, it's not good enough."