Falcons give up some turf to Saints

The Falcons were left scratching their heads after having their eight-game winning streak end. AP Photo/Dave Martin

ATLANTA -- John Abraham, just like everyone in the Atlanta Falcons' locker room, got the same speech Monday night. For a couple minutes -- right up until the media approached him -- Abraham played it by the rules.

As the first question came, though, there was something about Monday night’s 17-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints that left the defensive lineman so angry or disappointed that he no longer could follow orders.

“Coach [Mike Smith] told us to give [the Saints] their due,’’ Abraham said.

But Abraham, who usually stays pretty quiet, couldn’t do that.

“We just didn’t make the plays,’’ Abraham said. “There were so many plays left out there.’’

Make no mistake: The New Orleans Saints won the game, and Smith and the rest of the Falcons were quick to point that out and praise them. But Abraham also made valid points when he said the Falcons lost the game. They might have lost even a little more than that.

Although they are still in control of the race for the NFC South title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Falcons saw some certainty disappear, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling at this time of year.

The eight-game winning streak the Falcons had been riding since October is gone. The undefeated season at home is gone. Even some of the mystique that was building at the Georgia Dome is gone and there are footprints to trace who took it away.

In the moments after the game, Saints defensive linemen and linebackers left the locker room and gathered around the Falcons’ logo at midfield. The players weren’t doing Terrell Owens dances on the Dallas Cowboys star, but it would be wrong to say the scene didn’t have a celebratory air.

New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma told ESPN’s Ed Werder the Saints weren’t trying to rub it in to the Falcons, noting that his teammates frequently have pictures taken to commemorate significant victories.

Well, this would qualify as a victory that’s probably more significant than any the Saints have had since they won the Super Bowl. It puts them at 11-4 heading into the final weekend of the season. The Falcons (12-3), who finish the season at home against 2-13 Carolina, still control their destiny. If they beat the Panthers, the Falcons will win NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The only way the Saints can win the division for the second straight season is if Atlanta loses and New Orleans wins its final game at home against Tampa Bay and claims the title with a tiebreaker.

“We still like where we’re at,’’ Smith said.

They would have liked it a lot better if they had defeated the Saints on Monday night and made everything that happens in Week 17 moot. The Falcons certainly remain in prime position for everything that comes with what Smith called their “body of work,’’ and that’s true.

But then again, what happened Monday night showed that the Falcons aren’t invincible in the Georgia Dome. That little fact could come in handy if the Saints have to come back here in the playoffs or could benefit any other team that must come to Atlanta.

The Falcons didn’t collapse or anything close to that. They lost a close game to a good team.

“This is one of those games that you learn from,’’ Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “If we learn from something, then it’s not a bad thing.’’

There could be some truth in that and maybe it will make the Falcons stronger in the long run. But that learning process that Gonzalez mentioned probably should include crash courses in several topics.

A good place to start would be the importance of the running game. The Falcons gained only 75 yards on the ground, including just 48 on 17 carries from Michael Turner. He also lost his first fumble of the season, at the Saints' 2-yard line.

Smith also might want to brush up on his decision-making. With a fourth-and-6 at the Atlanta 43-yard line with 2:52 remaining, Smith elected to punt instead of going for the first down.

“I definitely thought it was the right thing to do,’’ Smith said.

I understand that the Atlanta defense had played pretty well all night until letting New Orleans march 90 yards on the previous drive to take the lead. But when you have Matt Ryan, king of the fourth-quarter comeback, you probably should let him go for it. Then there’s that little matter of handing the ball back to Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense when you have only two timeouts remaining.

The Saints took two plays to get a first down that basically allowed them to run out the clock and make sure Ryan didn’t get any chance at a miracle.

“We’re going to turn this into a positive,’’ Gonzalez said. “It was a wake-up call. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas.’’

Time is running short, so the Falcons better cram those lessons in. Clean up those things we just mentioned, get back to some of the basics that got them this far and bring the pass rush that they did against Brees on Monday night and everything might be all right.

The Falcons sacked Brees only once, but it seemed as though they were all over him on a night when he completed 35 of 49 passes for 302 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

“That millisecond is what cost us the game,’’ Abraham said.

That millisecond might have been the difference between the Saints posing for pictures on the logo or going home quietly.

“Now they’ve got the bragging rights and that’s going to hurt me until next year,’’ Abraham said.

Maybe, and it could get even worse if the Saints come back to the Georgia Dome in the playoffs and beat the Falcons again. And it certainly would hurt if anyone else comes into the Georgia Dome and knocks off the Falcons.

But maybe Abraham’s right in not heaping credit on the Saints. With their destiny still in their control, it's all about the Falcons, and they have to get it right. Maybe Abraham and the Falcons won't have to wait a year for revenge. If they just take care of their business, the Falcons can decide who gets to celebrate on their turf.