Maybe it was the short week. Maybe it was a turkey-induced Thanksgiving day hangover. Certainly it was a brave and desperate effort by an Atlanta Falcons team that saw its season tumbling toward oblivion.
Whatever the reasons, after three straight games of high-octane productivity with at least 45 points each against the Rams, Bengals and Eagles, the New Orleans Saints offense on Thursday night finally looked … human.
Drew Brees and the NFL's top-scoring offense didn't light up the scoreboard Thursday night in quite the record-setting pace of the past three weeks.
It looked for a long while as though someone — Atlanta, maybe? — had sabotaged the Saints’ gas tank. Drew Brees actually threw an interception (gasp!) for just the second time this entire season. The Falcons, the despised Falcons, dared to tug on Superman’s cape.
Eventually, though, order was restored. While all of Saints fandom may have exchanged worried glances at the great man hanging one out there for the wrong team, he was soon back at his tailor-like needle-threading best, spreading around touchdown passes to a quartet of undrafted receivers who could be the modern-day answer to the old Miami Dolphins’ No Name Defense.
Tommylee Lewis … Austin Carr … Dan Arnold … Keith Kirkwood. They caught the scoring strikes from Brees in this 31-17 victory, giving No. 9 an NFL-record-tying 13 different receivers catching TD passes this season.
Can't see video below? Click here.
They're great guys, I’m sure, and it was particularly great to see the long-injured Lewis back on the field for the first time since Week 2. But these four players are not going to get busts in Canton alongside Brees or Jerry Rice or Ozzie Newsome.
They were more proof, though, of the multitude of weapons at the Saints’ disposal in this fantastic season they are having.
Drew Brees' list of trusted receiving options somehow continues to grow with each passing week.
“To have those four guys each catch a touchdown on Thanksgiving day is pretty cool,” said Brees, looking in his plaid workaday shirt like a guy who just finished chopping wood in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Though not the offense that has left everyone awestruck past three games, it was still the Saints' fifth straight game with 30 or more points, tying a franchise record. While it's an impressive feat, the big story of New Orleans’ 10th straight victory was its defense, followed closely by the Falcons’ self-destructive vice of falling apart in the red zone like a $900 used car.
Leave the scoring binges to the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs and their Big 12 Conference-like shootout Monday night. They gorged themselves on points in a 54-51 Rams win that did the Saints no favors in the all-important race for NFC playoff home-field advantage (both teams are 10-1, though New Orleans has the head-to-head win and resulting tiebreaker).
But the Saints are playing far better defense than either L.A. or K.C. — at the moment, the other two Super Bowl favorites — could manage even with computer-generated special effects.
Credit the Falcons for putting on an aerial show with 340 net yards, allowing them to actually outgain the Saints 366-312. Atlanta netted just 26 yards rushing, though, which wouldn’t cover the distance from their Mercedes-Benz Stadium to the VIP parking lot.
Between meetings at the Saints’ facilities on Airline Drive and the Wednesday evening walkthrough and subsequent meetings up the road at a hot…
For the Falcons, all those passing yards were a lot of noise signifying nothing impactful. That’s because Atlanta — which entered the game tied with New Orleans for an NFL-low eight turnovers — turned over the ball four times in all and three times in the Saints red zone.
“Obviously the turnovers were significant,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “That and our rushing. I’m proud of our defense and that we ran the ball well.
“I feel we played a complimentary game.”
One could argue that all those yards and all those chances were a sign that the Falcons outplayed the Saints in some respects. Certainly, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan won the duel of passing stats with Brees, who threw for just 171 yards. But you can’t argue a team was outplayed when the other team turned the ball over and over and over again.
The Saints’ defense may not have performed perfectly. But it pounced on Atlanta mistakes and completely took away one half of the Falcons’ offense, stuffing their ground game in a foil-covered aluminum tray marked “leftovers.”
Can't see video below? Click here.
The Saints feasted — literally, after the game, as NBC’s Michele Tafoya brought out turkey legs for players to munch during interviews — on the Falcons offense. They not only outlawed the run but sacked Ryan six times.
Surely putting the bite on archrival Atlanta, sweeping the season series, tasted even better than NBC-supplied turkey.
In the end, it may not have been the kind of beating the New Orleans Saints and their legions would have wished to inflict on the hated Falcons. But it was, as Payton said, “a good division win,” one that eliminated now 4-7 Atlanta from NFC South contention while doing nothing to hamper the Saints’ ultimate goal of reaching the Super Bowl.
With the Atlanta Falcons well aware of the New Orleans Saints’ potent aerial attack entering Thursday’s Thanksgiving matchup, Alvin Kamara pun…
A Super Bowl that will be on the Falcons home field.