Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Atlanta Falcons strong safety Kemal Ishmael (36) and Atlanta Falcons free safety Dezmen Southward (41) sandwich Jimmy Graham at the goal line. Graham fumbled and the Flacons took over as the New Orleans Saints took on the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, December 21, 2014.


The Falcons were there for the taking on Sunday, a similar bad team like the Saints with one of the most statistically inept defenses in the NFL. Instead, Atlanta was the Grinch Who Stole The Saints’ Christmas by taking away their chance to win the NFC South and make the playoffs. The bottom line is that the Saints never deserved to make the postseason, because they are an average team (early Christmas gift description) with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, who is a few years past his prime, and a good coach in Sean Payton, who failed to motivate and lift up the rest of his players to a higher level. This loss was a microcasm of their season.


The Saints couldn’t have scripted a better start than the one they had on Sunday against the Falcons. It started with turning out the lights in the dome (which always brings back scary memories for Saints fans), fireworks in the pregame introductions, Jonathan Vilma leading the “Who Dat” chat, a 99-yard kickoff return by Jalen Saunders and a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. The Saints led 7-0 20 seconds into the game and the Superdome crowd was electric.


Credit the Falcons for weathering the storm and leading 13-7 at halftime. Their defense pitched a shutout after the gift opening touchdown. The 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Ryan to Eric Weems on the shovel pass was a brilliant call. They showed playoff poise, which used to be a given for them.


Saints fans should have taken as many pictures as possible of Falcons coach Mike Smith, because despite this win he won’t be coaching the team next year. Atlanta has regressed big time the last couple of years. Matt Ryan is not the same quarterback as two years ago. Prior to Sunday the defense most of this season has been more Swiss Cheese Grits than Grits Blitz. Rivalry aside, this game never should have been close for the Saints.


It was tough for New Orleans when referees ruled that Saints tight end Jimmy Graham fumbled on a play at the goal line, which cost the team a sure touchdown. But that play is is no excuse for them losing the game. The Saints still got a touchdown to cut the Falcons lead to 20-14 in the fourth quarter anyway. Good teams find a way to get past bad calls. Good teams find a way to win. The killer play was the Brees interception with 2:28 remaining that stopped a potential game-winning drive and gave the Falcons a chance to kick a field goal to make the score 23-14 with 1:56 remaining.


If you watched “Hard Knocks” this summer, it was apparent that the Falcons wanted to beat the Saints badly at all costs this season after what happened the previous year. The Saints played like a team that doesn’t have HBO. They played like they expected the Falcons to roll over in the Superdome, especially after the strong start. But if you learned anything from “Hard Knocks” it was obvious that the Falcons weren’t going to roll over and play dead for the Saints this year. One of the Falcons missions this season was to beat the Saints, and they swept them.


The Saints play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in both teams’ regular-season finale on Sunday.

By Pierce W. Huff