Saints bring Falcons back to earth

Jimmy Graham scored two touchdowns and had seven receptions for 146 yards against the Falcons. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

NEW ORLEANS -- If you thought the New Orleans Saints' 31-27 victory against the Atlanta Falcons was entertaining, wait until you hear what came out of the locker rooms at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after Sunday’s game.

New Orleans won the first four quarters (barely) and handed the Falcons their first loss of the season.

Or did Atlanta hand the Falcons their first loss of the season? As often is the case in the NFC South’s best rivalry, this one at least went into verbal overtime.

“It’s not like they came out here and just won the game,’’ said Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White, who has been known to take shots at the Saints and the city of New Orleans through the years. “I kind of think we gave it away. We gave it to them. It was really nothing they did. It was everything we did and not cashing in on opportunities.’’

Wait, did White really say the Falcons gave it away?

“Basically, yeah,’’ White said.

A few minutes after that, New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton stood at a podium in another corner of the building and delivered his most vicious shot on a day when he recorded five tackles. Keep in mind, Lofton played the first four years of his career with the Falcons before signing with the Saints in the offseason after being told he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker in Atlanta.

And keep in mind the question that prompted this: Do the Saints, who have won 11 of the past 13 meetings, consider the Falcons a rival? Lofton followed with an answer that I think he’s been rehearsing since March.

“A rivalry?" Lofton said. "I wouldn’t say so because the Saints always [are] out on top of that. It’s not even. It’s a divisional game and that brings extra attitude to it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry."

Maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s a divisive game when the Saints and Falcons get together. These two teams don’t like each other, and the words of Lofton and White just symbolize the emotions that were flying after the game.

In fact, you could say both White and Lofton made very valid points in the heat of the moment.

Let’s start with White. You could say he’s right in his assessment that the Falcons -- who came in with an 8-0 record -- gave the game away. All season long -- and even in recent seasons -- we’ve heard tons about how you can never count the Falcons out if quarterback Matt Ryan has the ball in his hands near the end of the game.

The Falcons stumbled all over that concept -- twice in the final minutes. Ryan drove the Falcons to the New Orleans 1-yard line just before the two-minute warning. When you’re 1 yard and two minutes away from being 9-0 and you’re going against a defense that came into the game on pace to be the worst in the history of the NFL, victory should be automatic.

It wasn’t. Ryan had put the Falcons at the 1-yard line with a first-down pass to Harry Douglas. An incompletion followed that, and then perhaps the ugliest play of the day came next. Michael Turner, who once appeared able to run through any defense, looked slower than he has all season. Put some blame on the Atlanta offensive line as well. Either way, Turner lost a yard, and Ryan’s fourth-down pass went incomplete.

“Whether it’s 1 yard or 10, when you don’t win, it’s frustrating,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

Even after the goal-line fiasco, the Falcons had another chance to win. Ryan and the offense got the ball back at their own 31-yard line with 37 seconds left. There were no miracles this time, just a 9-yard pass followed by three incompletions.

That’s why Lofton’s shots at his former teammates might have been spot-on. Atlanta fans and some players had been talking a lot about how the Falcons deserved more national attention and respect. There even had been some talk about the Falcons having a chance to go through the season undefeated.

All that turned out to be just talk, and it was way too premature. The Saints (4-5) showed they still have some life left in their season. Their running game (148 yards on the ground) was excellent, and their defense came through when it mattered most.

But the biggest story out of Sunday might have been that maybe the Falcons are what their critics said: overrated.

Atlanta’s defense looked like it was the one with a chance to be the worst in history. The running game (46 net yards) was pathetic.

All the talk about the Falcons being a different team this year now seems questionable. How are they going to finally win a playoff game when they can’t even beat a division rival that’s having a down year?

"That’s one team you don’t want to have your first loss to," Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud said.

A moment before, as reporters stood a few feet away, DeCoud was talking to a few other defensive backs.

“The bandwagon is over," DeCoud said.

Yeah, this loss was devastating because it came against the Saints. But as DeCoud cooled off a few minutes later, his logic made more sense.

Sunday marked the end of Atlanta’s winning streak, not the end of the world.

“It’s a distraction out of the way," DeCoud said.

The Falcons still are well on their way to winning the NFC South and on pace to hold home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. They need to treat the loss for what it was: one loss. But they need to take a look at all the flaws that were exposed in that loss and fix them.

“It’s a wake-up call," DeCoud said. “A nice little sock in the chin to bring us back to earth.’’

Now that they’ve been humbled, maybe the Falcons can fix the cracks that were apparent even when they were winning. If they do that in the most important stretch of the season and into the playoffs, they’ll finally get the attention and respect they crave, and there won't be talk about them being overrated.

If not, they’ll just be the same old Falcons.