NEW ORLEANS - When it mattered most, the Saints were better, winning, of all things, with their defense. Bet you thought you would never hear or say that!
Sure, the defense yielded 457 yards to extend their NFL record to nine straight games of yielding 400 or more yards but came through in the clutch in the fourth quarter, holding Atlanta to a field goal after the Falcons reached the one-yard line and getting a stop on the final possession of the game to secure a huge 31-27 win.
While this defense has been record setting in the wrong way, they have also developed a tendency of getting key stops in the red zone and around the goal line, in general.
The streak lives. Even without Sean Payton, the Saints have now beaten the Falcons 11-of-13 times, including four straight times. Can you say having a team's number?
Atlanta could not run the ball (46 yards total). Matt Ryan was very good, but not good enough. The Saints offense did enough to win.
All week long, I said that the Saints would have to score at least 30 points to win. They did. They won. Atlanta is no longer unbeaten and the Saints still have hope in 2012.
Here are my first takes:
**The reuniting of National Guardsman Brandon Davis with his wife and four of his five children in the pre-game ceremony was touching and a terrific move by the New Orleans Saints. Godspeed, Mr. Davis!
**Asante Samuel jumped the route on the interception of Brees on the first play from scrimmage by the Saints. Good play.
**Once again, running backs were superb for the Saints, running hard and with good vision. Mark Ingram looks like a different player the last two weeks.
**Of course, I will state the obvious once again--there must be something we do not know as to why Chris Ivory was inactive until the eighth game of the season. He is a beast. He punished Dunta Robinson on a 13-yard pass reception in the third quarter. The guy is good in space as well. He has good feet and the ability to make people miss. He made a defender miss, showed speed, cut across the grain, correctly switched hands with the football to protect it and stiff-armed a defender in lethal fashion to score on a 56-yard run.
**Matt Ryan did his best Drew Brees impersonation, completing his first nine passes before missing connections on one, thanks to pressure from Turk McBride, who put Ryan on the ground.
*Julio Jones went to the lockerroom late in the first quarter with a leg injury. He was hurt on a three-yard completion late in the quarter when hit by Cameron Jordan. He returned in the third quarter.
**Drew Brees extended his NFL record consecutive game streak with a touchdown pass to 52 games with his 29-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 13:33 to play in the 2nd quarter. Graham was lined up the slot and there was no over-the-top safety help. It was like taking candy from a baby!
**Cameron Jordan tackled Michael Turner for a one-yard loss despite losing his helmet early in the play. He continued to pursue, chased him down and made the play.
**The Saints had to burn a timeout with 8:43 left in the half due to defensive confusion. It appeared that they had 12 men on the field.
**Roman Harper dropped a sure interception in Atlanta territory in the second quarter. It cost the Saints dearly as the Falcons went on to drive for a go-ahead touchdown on a two-yard pass from Ryan to Tony Gonzalez to take a 17-14 lead, driving 14 plays, 80 yards and taking 7:06 off the clock, wearing down the defense and keeping Brees and the offense off the field. Harper is lost in coverage. He was asked to play deep zone frequently and was often a step or two late. He did make a nice play in stripping a potential touchdown pass away from Tony Gonzales in the end zone prior to the touchdown but it was much too little, too late.
**The touchdown catch by Gonzalez was the 100th touchdown of his illustrious career. He became just the eighth player in league history with 100 touchdowns.
**This was a classic case of the king and his heir. Gonzalez is the best tight end in NFL history. Graham is the budding star, who can reach that elite level if he can continue his early career productivity. Gonzalez finished with 11 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns while Graham had seven catches for a career-high 146 yards and two scores.
**The Saints got stopped following Gonzalez' touchdown because a pair of receivers failed to make catches on plays they could have made. Devery Henderson got his hands on a deep post pass from Brees and could not haul it in and Graham dropped what would have been a third-down conversion, just one play after he committed a false start penalty.
**The Saints defense responded with a huge stop, with Martez Wilson credited with a sack of Ryan.
**Graham redeemed himself in a big way before the end of the second quarter, making a brilliant move on linebacker Stephen Nicholas, destroying him. Brees hit Graham for a 14-yard touchdown pass and the Saints led 21-17 at halftime. In the first half alone, Graham had five catches for 89 yards and two scores.
**The Saints racked up 268 yards of total offense in the first half, including 116 yards rushing.
**Is Corey White coming of age? The rookie was thrown to the wolves to start the season. On the Falcons' first possession of the third quarter, he made an outstanding play to tip away a ball on a pass intended for Harry Douglas on a perfectly thrown ball. The play could have gone a long way. Two plays later, White intercepted Ryan, a terrific interception on a pass intended for D.J. Davis. On the tipped pass, he got his head turned just in time and reacted instantaneously. On the pick, he saw the receiver, got his head turned and made a great play on the ball. Unfortunately, he left the game injured. Here's hoping he can play in Oakland next week.
**Lance Moore made a tremendous catch on a deep ball down the middle early in the third quarter, reaching out and snaring it with one hand. The little man plays huge. Watch for this one on NFL Network and ESPN,
**Roddy White is a tremendous talent, nearly impossible to stop. Does he ever stop talking?
**The Falcons came up with a big drive of 11 plays, 96 yards, taking 5:46 off the clock and Ryan hit Gonzalez with a perfectly executed six-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 28-24 with 13:27 to play in the game. The drive continued following an illegal hands to the face penalty on Will Smith which really hurt the Saints.
**Devery Henderson had another crucial drop to give the Falcons defense a big three-and-out following their long drive for a touchdown, giving the potent Atlanta offense the ball back quickly. There is no excuse. You must make that catch in that situation. Henderson has enjoyed a nice, long career but has always had bouts of the drops.
**Quiet, likable Marques Colston moved into a tie for first all-time in New Orleans Saints history with 55 touchdowns on his 7-yard touchdown reception from Brees in the third quarter. Colston is now tied with Deuce McAllister. Deuce was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame two months ago in his first year of eligibility. Want to bet that Colston has the same fate in his first year of eligibility whenever he retires? Hopefully, that is a long way from now. The guy is consistent and classy in all aspects.
**The Saints sideline got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for being outside of the coaching box on the Falcons' drive to take the lead. It appeared to be on Joe Vitt, giving the Falcons first-and-goal at the New Orleans five-yard line. The Saints defense then came up big with Jabari Greer getting a big knock down on an end zone pass intended for Roddy White.
**The Saints then ran the ball three times, forcing Atlanta to burn its final two timeouts. Would Sean Payton have opted for a pass? A first-down wins the game. On the other hand, an incomplete pass stops the clock, giving the Falcons valuable time on the clock. Interesting to ponder but it proved to be the correct decision.
**Thomas Morstead then blasted a 55-yard punt. Along with a holding penalty on the Falcons, the Saints had the Falcons backed up to their own 31-yard line with no timeouts remaining. The Saints defense did its job again, preventing Atlanta from scoring.
**On the final series of the game, Roddy White clearly pushed off on Isa Abdul Quddus on a deep ball, a blatant infraction that was not called. Fortunately, Ryan's pass was way too long. Quddus did not do a very good job to allow White to get over the top, though. On fourth down, Gonzalez simply did not catch a pretty easy ball to grab. Go figure!
**Charles Brown started at right tackle for the injured Zach Strief and appeared to be a commendable to solid job.
Of course, this was the signature win of an otherwise disappointing season for the Saints, who have now won 4-of-5 after an abysmal start. Mickey Loomis is back. Vitt is entrenched. Jonathan Vilma and Smith are playing. Payton is watching. So is the rest of the league now.
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