Coming into the New Orleans game, the Atlanta Falcons sat at 8-0. Against the Saints, the Falcons came out and did what they needed to do to open the game. On the first drive they went the length of the field and on the strength of a long pass to Roddy White were able to go in for an early TD. On the first defensive series of the game, and the first pass play, Asante Samuel was able to get an interception. The commentators talked about how this could not have started better for the Falcons. Unfortunately, the end result was a 31-27 loss to New Orleans and the first blemish on the Falcons record. So how did this happen?
A Fired Up Rival With Their Backs Against The Wall
It's tough to win on the road in the NFL. It's even tougher to win in the division and especially when it's against a rival. Did I mention that this was a must win for the Saints as they came into the game with a 3-5 record. From the very first play of the game you could tell that the Saints were focused and were going to play this game with a lot of passion and a lot of tenacity. It didn't work out for the Saints on the first two drives, but once they settled down they played a much better football game then they have for the majority of the season.
The Falcons are the least penalized team in the NFL and that's something that has really helped them this year. Against the Saints, the Falcons committed more penalties than the Saints and for more yardage but more importantly was the timing of the penalties. After the quick interception by Asante Samuel, the Falcons got a 15 yard penalty. Did that penalty cause them to end up with a FG instead of a TD by pushing their starting point for that drive backwards? In the third quarter there was a big penalty that backed the Falcons up inside their own twenty. On that same drive, Drew Davis false started on a 3rd and one. The Falcons ended up scoring on that drive but the penalties extended the drive and ultimately took time off the clock that the Falcons needed at the end of the game. Maybe the biggest penalty came with 37 seconds left as the Falcons got flagged on their punt return and it backed them up 10 yards when they were in a position where they had to score a TD and couldn't afford negative yardage.
The Chris Ivory run was a sickening thing to watch for a Falcons fan. Ivory took a hand-off, weaved in and out of defenders and went 65 yards for a TD. Ivory should have been tackled for little or no gain but Asante Samuel chose to give Ivory the corner instead of making him take the ball inside where he had help. That decision, and some tackling (or non tackling) afterwards, cost the Falcons seven points.
Covering the Tight End
Much like Greg Olson of Carolina earlier this season, Jimmy Graham flat out dominated the Falcons. Graham caught a TD pass in the second quarter and that really got him going. Graham was critical on the two minute drill at the end of the first half as he caught three passes on that drive and finished off the drive with a TD. He also had a long catch in the middle of the fourth quarter that set up the field goal that put New Orleans up by four. Graham finished with 7 catches for 146 yards and 2 TDs. He was the difference in the game and without him the Saints don't win.
The Goal Line Stand
The Falcons had their shot. Down in the red zone closing in on the end of the game. The Falcons drove 78 yards on 12 plays taking the ball from the Falcons twenty yard line to the Saints one yard line but they were denied by the Saints. The Falcons had three chance to get the ball in the end zone from the one yard line and had two incompletions and a Michael Turner run where he lost a yard.
A lot of things went into this loss. The penalties, missed tackles, not being able to cover the tight end, the goal line stand at the end and a game opponent. The Falcons had their shot to win this game but they couldn't close it out. When we look back, the Falcons have made a living out of winning games like this. Through the first eight games, the Falcons won five of them by ten points or less. Sooner or later in the NFL you are going to lose a football game. There is just too much parity in the league.
What you have to do know is go back to the drawing board and fix the reasons why you lost the game. The Falcons didn't play horribly, but they did make key mistakes and you can't make key mistakes when you are playing against a talented team that was in the situation that the Saints were in. All is not lost with one loss. There have been 18 teams to start 8-0 in the NFL. Twelve of these teams have gone on to the Super Bowl and eight of those have won the big game. The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. Make adjustments and come back the next week to fight knowing that you aren't invincible.