ATLANTA — When it was over, when 71 points sent sparks shooting from the Georgia Dome scoreboards and the teams combined to melt the artificial turf for 1,040 yards and the lead changed hands like a relay baton five frantic times after halftime, the Atlanta Falcons celebrated victory over their most hated rival by turning the New Orleans Saints’ signature chant into a bitter taunt.
“We dat!” the Falcons faithful yelled. “We dat!”
The objective eye will look at Sunday’s 37-34 overtime Saints loss to the Falcons and see an incredible game, a true classic in the Deep South’s best and most passionate pro football rivalry.
But there’s no objectivity when it comes to the Saints and Falcons.
History is written by the winners, and the Falcons will write this up large in their annals as one of their franchise’s greatest wins.
The Saints will mourn an opportunity lost and wonder if an offseason of bright promise and enormous expectations has merely been deflected or suffered a mortal wound.
There is no room for rational perspective when the Saints and Falcons play. There is only overwrought emotion, unbridled euphoria or doomsday-grade despair.
The Saints have enough talent, coaching and time to heal 100 percent from this loss. Come February, black and gold-clad Saints fans may well be in Glendale, Arizona, lubricating themselves with margaritas for the Super Bowl and remarking, “Remember how worried everyone was when we lost in Atlanta? Bartender — another round!”
New Orleans right tackle Zach Strief’s margarita glass is still half-full.
“The natural feeling to jump to is (to ask if) this is indicative of how this team will play all season,” said Strief, his upbeat tone piercing the mood of a Saints locker room that needed to rise a couple of notches on the happy meter to get to “gloomy.”
“I hope it is. We played well. We just didn’t make plays at the end. That’s the NFL.”
True enough, but a loss in this rivalry can leave a mark on your spirit. Psychological scars run deep on both sides.
The Falcons went to New Orleans exactly one year ago Monday as the NFC South Division favorite. After a drama-filled 23-17 loss to the Saints, one decided by a Roman Harper interception of a deflected Matt Ryan pass in the end zone on the game’s final play, Atlanta burned to the ground. The Falcons finished at the bottom of the NFC South birdcage a dismal 4-12.
A loss to the Saints set the funereal tone.
On the other hand …
“When you start off with a win, it builds momentum,” Falcons receiver Devin Hester said. “We came out today knowing it would be a tough fight.”
It was realistic to assume this wouldn’t be a 13-10 defensive stalemate. Both teams are bristling with offensive weapons, the Saints having added a shiny new saber for Drew Brees to rattle in the person of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks.
But the Falcons can move the ball when they’re on, and in some respects Sunday, they were never better. Ryan broke the franchise career touchdown pass record en route to throwing for 448 yards and three scores.
After some early stops, the Saints seemed powerless to brake Von Ryan’s express. Credit the Falcons’ talent, but on plays like Antone Smith’s 54-yard touchdown pass and Jacquizz Rodgers’ 17-yard touchdown run, New Orleans raised missed tackles to an art form.
And the Saints lost the turnover battle 2-1, the prize they coveted most of all this entire offseason.
Both turnovers were critical. The Saints looked destined to score before Brees’ pass for Cooks in the end zone was intercepted by Robert McClain, likely denying New Orleans at least a third-quarter field goal as Atlanta surged. The second came in overtime when Marques Colston fumbled a Brees pass at his team’s 38, making the Falcons’ victory seem inevitable.
Afterward, a distraught Colston, who has helped the Saints win many more games than he could ever cause them to lose, couldn’t bear to talk to reporters. Meanwhile, safety Kenny Vaccaro sat in front of his locker for long moments still in full uniform, appearing to replay every yard the Falcons gained in his mind.
Hey, guys, it was a great game, and every indication is the Saints have a great team. Playing your biggest rival on the road to start the season? For anyone, that’s asking for trouble.
Despite the jeering Falcons, the Saints could easily still be all dat.
But this one hurts. This one really hurts.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.