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New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton argues a call with head linesman Ed Walker (123) and side judge Alex Kemp (55) against the Carolina Panthers in an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

ATLANTA — Sean Payton hinted at it during the first sentence he spoke Thursday night.

The Saints were fighting more than just the Falcons. He wouldn’t initially elaborate on what those things were, but it's not hard to make a guess.

Let's start with the schedule, playing a Thursday game on the road after being scheduled for the late afternoon the week before. It’s not hard to see how that impacted the game. We could go through the body count and describe each one, but there’s only so much space allotted here.

And then there was the officiating. Any impartial observer knows it looked funny. Check the timelines of a few national reporters on Twitter. You'll see words like "curious," "odd" and "interesting" used to describe moments in this game, if not the overall contest.

Start at the end. The head coach drew a flag — essentially giving the Falcons a 20-17 victory — for trying to call a timeout and getting a little more boisterous than he probably should have to make sure the official heard him. Payton acknowledges it shouldn't have happened, but by that point in the game, after a handful of questionable calls, he lost his cool.

The penalty hurt, for sure, but, as Bill Belichick might say, it is what it is.

“I called a timeout and then he asked me again, and I said, ‘I already called a timeout,’” Payton explained. “I probably said it with a little more oomph or vigor than I was supposed to, but I had (had) enough. I need to be smarter.”

His players didn't blame the coach at all.

“You never want to complain about the officiating, but you can’t call that penalty in that situation,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “You have to give us guys a chance to keep fighting. That just ended the game. Nobody wants to see that in the first place. That’s a reach.”

Most members of the Saints were reluctant to complain about the officiating. It was something that happened, and you must find ways to overcome. But more than one player thought some of the things that happened on the field were odd, and some could only hide their feelings for so long when pressed on the issue.

It wasn’t just because the Saints had 11 penalties for 87 yards, while the Falcons were flagged just four times for 35 yards. Some of the things called aren't usually called. It raised eyebrows.

Take the field goal at the end of the first half, or, rather, the called-back field goal. New Orleans got flagged for lining up illegally and was subject to a 10-second runoff, which ended the half. Sometimes the officials call that penalty, but more often it results in a warning and not a flag.

As the team said, it’s on them to get it right, but given how that situation usually plays out, it was a bit curious to see a flag fly.

“Throughout the whole game, the refs will give us a warning, even during a series if a tackle is lined up too far off the ball,” guard Larry Warford said. “They’ll give us a warning. On that field goal, they just chose not to give us a warning. They called it. Just got to be perfect in this league. It’s unforgiven. Small mistakes. I mean, if they call it, they call it.”

It wasn’t just that. The Saints weren’t happy with the roughing-the-passer call Sheldon Rankins drew on a third-and-11 in the second quarter after Matt Ryan threw an incomplete pass. It kept the drive alive, and Atlanta eventually scored after running nearly six additional minutes off the clock.

Then there were could-have-been penalties that didn't get called, or infractions that were called that the team flat out didn’t think happened.

“It’s Thursday night. There might a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial in for this?” said defensive end Cam Jordan, referencing a commercial series in which refs purposely change the outcome of a game and noting there were some "phantom calls" during the game. “I don’t know. Some calls were made, and at the end of the day, we still have to be able to get the win. Without being too frustrated about it, without saying that we got robbed, without saying that we were the better team, we clearly have to see them again in two weeks. They come to us.”

And then there’s playing on Thursday night. Several of the players knocked out of the game felt their injuries were a direct result of the quick turnaround. Again, this is something both teams dealt with, and Atlanta was able to overcome it, but that doesn’t mean the risk was necessary.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro was one of the players knocked out of action. He said he was unable to play because the scar tissue from a groin injury he suffered earlier this season flared up. He left the game to protect himself.

That's not a decision Vaccaro or his teammates think would come up if there was ample time to rest between games in a league where player safety is supposed to be the primary concern.

“I know on Thursdays I’m still sore from Sunday’s game. I’m not really back until Friday or Saturday. To have to play is ridiculous,” Vaccaro said. “But we do it. That’s what they want. I guess it makes money.”

There's a lot of things for the team to be upset about, but the Saints aren’t too down about the loss. They felt they learned something about themselves by going through this game.

“We were down six or seven guys and in it all the way until the end,” Vaccaro said. “This loss showed a lot about the team we have. If that happened in the past, how many guys we lost, I don’t think the game would even be close. It just shows the resilience we have in the locker room.”

That’s probably true, but there was only so much this team felt it could fight through on Thursday. At a certain point, it became too much.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​