After struggling for most of the first three quarters Sunday, the New Orleans Saints offense finally put together its most promising drive of a must-win game with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints gained just 94 yards on their first seven possessions against the NFL’s worst defense before marching 66 yards to the Falcons’ 14 on the final play of the third quarter, trailing 20-7.

As the suddenly lively Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd sensed the Saints were back in it, a controversial fumble by tight end Jimmy Graham on the first play of the final quarter changed everything in a flash and loomed large in the Saints’ 30-14 loss.

Coupled with a win by the Carolina Panthers over the Cleveland Browns, the Saints (6-9) were eliminated from postseason contention, while the Falcons (6-9) remained in the hunt for a playoff berth.

To open the fourth quarter, Graham caught a short pass from Drew Brees and appeared to nudge the ball over the goal line as Falcons safety Dezmen Southward desperately tried to keep the 6-foot-7, 265-pounder out of the end zone.

As Southward held Graham up, teammate Kemal Ishmael ripped the ball free and recovered the fumble to end the threat as the Saints and their fans watching replays on the video boards vigorously protested.

Since all turnovers are reviewed automatically, referee John Parry went under the hood and consulted with league officials in New York. The play was upheld because there wasn’t enough visual evidence to overturn the ruling of a fumble on the field, Parry said.

“It’s something you can’t control,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s the same look that they have; I know that. What we were looking at is a television angle, (and) there’s only one angle that matters, right? The other ones didn’t matter. Did I think was a score? Yes.”

When asked whether he thought Graham’s forward progress was stopped, Payton said, “The one look we had as they continued to show it looked pretty clear. Yet — look, it is what it is … they (talk) to New York now with that. It’s disappointing.”

Parry told a pool reporter that he and league officials looked at every replay angle but focused on the one at the goal line that showed the ball in Graham’s left hand as he tried to bull his way into the end zone.

“There was nothing clear and undisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field,” Parry said. “If we had (originally) ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score.”

The Falcons offense took over and drained more than 5½ minutes off the clock before the Saints got the ball back.

The Saints went on to score on a 4-yard pass from Brees to Graham with 5:48 to play to cut the deficit to 20-14, but the damage already had been done.

Graham, who caught six passes for 53 yards, showered and left the locker room before reporters were allowed to enter. But, not surprisingly, several of his teammates disagreed with the call.

“I was running a go route on the other side of the field and saw him catch the ball and get to the goal line,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “I guess it’s one of those things where the officials made a call, and it was tough to overturn it.”

Guard Jahri Evans said the replays showed the ball in Graham’s left hand as he pushed the ball across the goal line.

“Man, I don’t understand that play at all,” he said. “Half his body is across the goal line. He had the ball in his left hand, and the left hand is clearly across the goal. I don’t understand how it’s not a touchdown.”

Even though it was only one play, tackle Zach Strief said it was certainly a momentum-changer.

“Obviously it took points off the board, and it was a big momentum shift,” he said. “We think he was in, and they didn’t. … That’s how it falls.”

“It sure looked like it was going to be a touchdown for us,” Brees said. “It’s huge in the fact that it’s seven points or it’s not seven points — that’s huge.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.