When the Saints and Falcons play, the outcome is rarely determined by the win-loss records, the injuries or the playoff implications.
The Saints entered the game undefeated and banged up on defense. The Falcons entered the game teetering on the edge of playoff insignificance and with major injuries on offense.
The result? A typical down-to-the-wire, hard knocking, explosive and unpredictable game that was decided at the end. Much like their previous match in the Superdome on Monday Night Football this season, this game was hard-fought and hard-won by the Saints.
Playing without Mike Bell but with a rejuvenated Reggie Bush on hand, Drew Brees was unstoppable, with a 138.7 QB Rating and over 77% of his passes completed. He finished 31/40 for 296 yards and three touchdown, two short passes to Bush - that he turned into scores - sandwiched around a bolt over the middle to Marques Colston.
The surprising QB performance came from Chris Redman of the Falcons, starting in place of star Matt Ryan. Redman is on his second tour of duty in the NFL, having been out of the league for three seasons from 2004-2006. He played well in relief as the Falcons employed a short passing game that helped hide Redman's shortcomings. Twelve of Redman's 23 completions were to backs and tight ends. The Falcons running game was allowed breathing room on only a couple drives by the Saints defense, and botttled on the day to only 70 yards from runningbacks Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling.
That eventual game-winning field goal by Hartley made the score 26-23 and set the single-season franchise record for points scored with 466. The Saints still have three games left to push that mark up to unrepeatable standards.
The Saints had two second quarter touchdowns to bring their lead to 16-6 before the Falcons kicked a field goal at the end of the first half.
Reggie Bush's touchdown in the second quarter put the Saints up 10-6, a drive aided by a fantastic throw and a streaking, extending Robert Meachem for a 42-yard gain to the Falcon 11. Bush took a pass to the right flat and, as he has made a habit of, dove and reached for the front pylon for the score.
The defense forced a punt and on the next drive, the Saints were aided by a pass interference penalty on Falcon CB Brent Grimes for a third down conversion as they moved 66 yards down the field in 6:31 to score with :56 left on a Brees pass to Colston.
The touchdown connection to Colston was Brees' 19th completion out of 21 attempts, giving him a perfect passer rating in the first half. But the defense's struggles but against the Redman passing attack marred an otherwise fantastic performance by Brees, who now has 8 games this season with a 102 QB rating or better.
The defense, playing without both starting cornerbacks and starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, allowed the Falcons to outgain the Saints 392-391 in the final numbers. The Falcons converted 12 of their 19 first downs in the air. The Saints stiffened in the red zone however, allowing only one touchdown on four red zone possessions by the Falcons.
The Saints offense helped out their defense, winning the time of possession battle 36:44 to 23:16 and rushing for 95 yards. The Saints scored on six of their possessions, each one taking no less than 4:29 off the clock.
The Saints opened scoring in the third quarter by marching 80 yards in 5:49. That drive also saw another Grimes pass interference penalty nullify a push-and-pick, when he ran into WR Robert Meachem, shoving him aside to make the catch. Falcons HC Mike Smith, walking out into the field of play, destroyed his headset by smashing it to the Georgia Dome turf in protest as the officials marked off the 28-yard penalty.
It was a back and forth drive that saw the Saints penalized for holding and lose nine yards on a Reggie Bush fumble and recovery. The play immediatley after Bush's fumble on 3rd and 19, the Saints caught the Falcons in an eight-man blitz. A screen to Bush in the right side scored easily, with an army of Saints blockers to deal with only three scrambling defenders.
That score put the Saints up 23-9 but the Falcons would score touchdowns on their next two possessions, on a 50-yard touchdown pass where Gregg Williams blitzed both cornerbacks and Darren Sharper was beaten in man coverage on WR Michael Jenkins. The Saints then punted late in the third, Morstead's only effort of the day, which wasn't great and was fair caught at the Atlanta 21.
The Falcons had all the momentum at this point, and marched 79 yards down the field in 11 plays and 5:21. Redman worked over Randall Gay and Roman Harper, going aerial to his receivers and hitting Roddy White for 14 yards, Brian Finneran for 19 yards, Marty Booker for 8 yards and TE Tony Gonzales for 18 yards down to the Saint four.
Snelling's touchdown plunge from there tied the game at 23, a score that should have reflected a one-point lead for the Saints had kicker Garrett Hartley not missed a second quarter extra point. Hartley's miss on the extra point, though he converted two other extra points and two medium range field goals including the eventual game-winner, will only complicate things for the Saints' coaching staff. Veteran John Carney, himself benched for a missed FG and a near-miss XP against New England, remains on the roster.
Snelling's game-tying TD plunge was only the third touchdown the Saints allowed in the fourth quarter all season.
The Saints' next drive took 8:14 off the clock, from the 12:56 mark to the 4:42 mark of the fourth quarter. It was a crucial, game-saving drive for the offense, and though it netted only a field goal, it allowed the Saints' defense to prepare for the game's final possessions, which the Saints ultimately won.
Following Hartley's field goal with 4:42 left, the Falcons took the ball from their own 36 to own 24. That's right, the Saints turned the Falcons' wildcat formation handoff from Norwood to WR Eric Weems into a 12 yard loss for the home team - much to the joy of the many Saints fans in the stadium. On the next play, Chris Redman was intercepted by Jonathan Vilma on the first of two huge plays for the Saints' star middle linebacker.
The turnover set the Saints up deep in Falcons territory. A nine yard completion to Devery Henderson moved the Saints into the red zone but the drive stalled at the Falcon 15. A fake field goal attempt had backup QB Mark Brunell, the placeholder, attempt a pass. Brunell had a man open underneath but was looking downfield for the kill shot touchdown before he was hurried and forced into an incompletion.
Though risky, it would have ended the game with 2:11 left and the Saints up 10, or at least with a first down. Taking over at their own 15, the Falcons moved into Saints territory with short passes to Snelling for 18, Booker for 9 and Tony Gonzales for 8 yards on 3rd and 10. That set up fourth down and two at the Saint 46. That's when Jonathan Vilma came through again, blasting Snelling at the Saint 45 and dropping him after only one yard gain. Brees kneeled away the final 1:12.
Brees tied Aaron Brooks' franchise record for 120 touchdown passes, only a week after passing Archie Manning on that list. Its a foregone conclusion that the record will be his this season.
RT Jon Stinchcomb went out of the game for a while, but later re-entered the game with a right knee brace. That raised the spectre of the Saints' having lost both starting tackles, but Stinchcomb appears to be ok.
TE Jeremy Shockey suffered a minor right foot injury and an elbow cut during the game and left early for halftime. After being targeted five times for four catches in the first half, Shockey was only thrown to once in the second half.