Both teams were on the ropes. Both teams went for knockout punches, both teams survived huge swings of emotion. Both teams ended regulation at 24 points.
The Saints and Falcons played nearly five quarters of football on Sunday in the Superdome as the Saints opened divisional play with a 2-0 record. The offense revealed glimpses of 2009 explosiveness mixed with glimpses of 2008 self-destruction, as the defense was cooly beaten by Matt Ryan.
In short, the Saints didn't deserve to win on Sunday. A slew of miscues, not the least of which was Garret Hartley's misfired chipshot field goal, gave the win to Atlanta.
Hartley's kick to win the game in overtime handed the game back to the Falcons, who earned the victory with a dominating run game and over 45 minutes of possession time. Bryant's 46-yarder late in overtime ended the longest game in Saints history. Only a previous overtime loss to Atlanta in 1991 was longer.
Gregg Williams' defense, having caused four turnovers in the first two games, came up with none against the Falcons, who were stingy with their offensive mistakes. A goal line fumble by RB Jason Snelling was overturned, his elbow ruled down before Malcolm Jenkins forced it loose, that's as close as the Saints got.
The Saints' offense was cued by Brees, and his favorite targets were TE Jeremy Shockey (eight throws his way for eight catches, 78 yards and a touchdown) and WR Lance Moore, who had six catches on seven throws, 149 yards, two touchdowns, plus a 72-yard punt return in the first quarter that set up Shockey's score.
Brees' stats were huge, completing 30 of 38 passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns. But a series of miscues let the Falcons seize control of the game. The Falcons held the ball 45 minutes total of a game that lasted 73 minutes.
After the Falcons punted on their opening drive, Lance Moore, Reggie Bush's replacement at punt returner, scooted down the left sideline and nearly scored, knocked out at the six yard line. A short pass to Jeremy Shockey in spread formation put the Saints up 7-0.
Ryan's counter-punch on the next drive was fueled by three passes to TE Tony Gonzales, who abused the Saints for a 14-yard gain on 3rd and 7, a 34-yard gain down the middle into the Saint red zone, and a 13-yard touchdown catch on third down. All levels of the Saints' secondary and linebacking corps were beaten by Gonzales on this day.
Brees opened the second drive of the game with a deep pass to Henderson, a throw that hung in the air and sailed way behind a streaking, open Devery Henderson. CB Brent Grimes, shaken loose by Henderson, instead found himself in position to reel in the interception. That was his first interception in 242 straight attempts in the first quarter.
But that mistake wouldn't be as painful as others, as the Falcons were forced into a three-and-out on the following possession. His next mistake would only lead to a snowball of defensive miscues in the second quarter.
Up by 7 and driving to the Falcon 25 yard line, Brees scrambled right, and though stumbling dodged two sacks. Off balance, he underarmed a floating pass towards TE Jimmy Graham, but instead found S Thomas DeCoud, who was rushing up quickly behind Graham.
With 11:42 left on the clock, Ryan took over at his own 28 and led the Falcons on a 19-play, 72-yard drive that would tie the score at 14. That 10:39 drive ate up all but the final minute of the second quarter, a demoralizing drive for the Saints defense.
The Saints defense could have stopped Ryan on the first third down conversion, but the tall, solidly-built Ryan squeezed out of Jimmy Wilkerson's tackle on a quarterback sneak, spun to the right and was dragged down after a two yard gain. Three plays later, Ryan converted a second third down with a strike to TE Tony Gonzales, who was a nemesis for the Saints all game long. Gonzales was thrown to nine times, catching eight passes for 110 yards and the Falcons' first touchdown.
Same drive, six plays later, the Saints put the Falcons in fourth and short, and Ryan easily converted it with a seven yard strike to Roddy White over the middle. Four plays later, Ryan converted a second fourth and short with a nine yard pass to Tony Gonzales down to the 2. The Saints would have forced the Falcons into a third and three but a horse collar call on Remi Ayodele gave that drive its whopping seventh first down. The Falcons' back-breaking, game-tying drive was capped by a Michael Turner blast up the middle from one yard out.
The Saints' second half opening possession covered 42 yards on 10 plays, but RB Chris Ivory would be stopped and forced to fumble on a fourth down conversion. Ivory surprisingly missed only two games with an end-of-preseason MCL sprain. But his debut was forgettable. His seven carries for 13 yards started with one rush for nine yards, one rush for two yards on 2nd and 1. But his next five carries were all problematic: stuffed for a one yard gain, stuffed and fumbles on 4th and 1, stuffed on 3rd and 1, stuffed for a one yard gain and stuffed for no gain.
The Falcons took their first second half possession down to the New Orleans 2 yard line and the Saints' defense stiffened. It was a solid victory for Gregg Williams' unit, as Ryan misfired to Gonzales on an open fade route, then the Saints stopped Turner behind the line of scrimmage twice. The Falcons settled for a 17-14 lead and a field goal.
Brees' next drive was a three-and-out, ended by the first of two bad drops by WR Devery Henderson. But the Saints would maintain momentum with their only turnover of the day.
The Saints' special teams forced turnovers in back-to-back games, both on sideline plays that involved an accidental touch by the receiving team that was recovered by the Saints. Rookie TE Jimmy Graham was the star of this one, as Thomas Morstead's punt skied near the sideline and hit S Thomas DeCoud's foot on the way down.
The ball bounding out of bounds, Graham pulled a move out of his background as a college basketball player at Miami. With his feet in bounds, Graham grabbed and slapped the ball back in bounds, where LS Jason Kyle was waiting. Kyle himself made a fantastic play, holding the ball as he dragged toes in bounds. A replay review confirmed that the ball hit DeCoud, that Graham was in bounds and that Kyle recovered the ball and was in bounds.
The Saints took over possession at the Falcon 42, a 38 yard gain on the play, and cashed it in five plays later with Moore's second touchdown, a shallow crossing route completion. Moore slipped a tackle by MLB Curtis Lofton and picked up a block downfield from TE Jeremy Shockey for a 16 yard touchdown and the 17-14 lead.
The Falcons would seize momentum back with their next drive. The Saints defense, short both strong safety Roman Harper and CB Tracy Porter for periods of time, allowed Ryan to overcome penalties that forced 2nd and 17, and four plays later, 2nd and 16. Back to back completions to WR Roddy White of 24 and 22 yards beat over-the-top coverage by FS Malcolm Jenkins, who didn't have a great game. White's touchdown on that 22 yard catch beat Greer badly and saw Jenkins rolling over late to cover the top and put the Falcons up 24-21.
Down three points in the third quarter, the Saints abandoned the run. On the next drive, with nine minutes left in regulation, Brees fired to Lance Moore for 20 yards, then three times incomplete. That last incompletion saw the Falcons offsides, so on 3rd and 5 Brees dropped back again but stepped up and couldn't escape shoestring pressure for a sack.
Ryan got the ball back and moved 43 time-consuming yards to the Saint 37 when Falcons head coach Mike Smith went for it again on fourth down, eschewing a long field goal. Ryan fired short right but Saints DE Alex Brown got a paw on the pass and deflected it incomplete. The Saints held, giving the ball back to Brees with 3:32 left in the fourth quarter. Four passes moved the Saints 26 yards and inside the two-minute warning. Ivory was stuffed on third and short, one of two rushing attempts by the Saints in the fourth quarter, then Brees hit Shockey for a six yard fourth-down conversion with :36 left.
Following a timeout, Brees hit Thomas, who turned it into a nine yard, hard-charging gain before a spike at :18. Getting closer, Brees gave the ball to Pierre Thomas up the middle, who gained seven more hard-fought yards. But Thomas' indomitable style gave the entire WhoDat Nation a scare when he didn't get up following a scary-looking left knee bend. Thomas would return in overtime.
The Saints carried the ball only twice in the fourth quarter. The Falcons, meanwhile ran the ball 28 times in after halftime, part of their strategy that drubbed the Saints into submission late in overtime.
The Saints burned their final timeout with :12 left and Brees took one shot towards the end zone, short-hopping a ball to an open Lance Moore in the end zone. With :09 left in regulation, K Garrett Hartley tied up the game with a 32-yard field goal.
But Brees and Hartley's night wouldn't be over. Tied at 24, the Falcons won the toss and the Saints defense came up with their biggest three plays of the night, forcing an incompletion, stopping Turner after a short gain and sacking Ryan on third down to force a punt.
Brees moved the ball from his own 32 to the Falcon 11 yard line, opening with a 23-yard gainer by Pierre Thomas on a classic Saints screen pass. Brees hit Shockey for 5 and Moore for 14 before Ivory was stuck twice, setting up third and long at the Falcon 25. Not wanting to endanger a 42-yard field goal attempt, Brees hit Devery Henderson on a bubble screen that turned into a 14 yard gain to the Falcon 11 and what should have been a game-killer. On first down, the Saints and Falcons exchanged timeouts before Hartley lined up for a 29-yard field goal from the right hash.
After minutes prior sending the Saints' to overtime, Hartley shanked it. An ugly knuckleballer spun horizontally and was wide left. After Brees overcame the worst that Mike Smith's defense had to offer, and moved his team to the opponents' 11 in overtime despite all their miscues, the Falcons were alive.
Matt Ryan wouldn't be denied again. The Saints' defense, already taxed by an injury to CB Tracy Porter and the Falcons' domination of time of possession, didn't have many punches left. The Falcons were guilty of holding on their first play, setting up 1st and 20, but as had happened so many times during the day, the Falcons overcame the refs. A 13-yard scramble by Ryan was big, then a defensive pass interference call on CB Jabari Greer gave the Falcons new life. An 8-yard gain on a short dump off to Snelling set the stage for the Falcons to pound the ball down the Saints' throat.
Eight straight rushes shared by big bruisers Turner and Snelling moved the ball 36 yards to the Saint 26 and set up fourth and 2.
On the 41-yard field goal attempt, the Saints appeared to block the kick, but the Falcons may have stood up early as Sean Payton iced the Falcons at the last second. The Falcons made it even more difficult on themselves with a false start on the field goal attempt, but Matt Bryant nailed the 46-yard field goal attempt with 2:00 left in overtime and the victory.
The Saints and Falcons both sit at 2-1 atop the NFC South, but neither team should be thrilled with their performances. The Saints' constant shortcomings on offense and defense weren't enough to sink them thanks to a fast start and a huge day by Lance Moore, who had 221 total yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons rushed for 202 yards and controlled the ball for 37:15 in regulation, and even picked Brees twice, but still let their opponent force overtime and come within a mental breakdown by their kicker of winning.
Hartley's late-game failure is so frustrating, especially given that his 32-yard field goal was perfect earlier in the game. Peter King of SI and NBC reported Sunday night that the Saints reached out to free agent K John Carney, though that may not be to replace Hartley after only three games. Carney served the Saints for more than half of last season as a kicking consultant.
In three games, the Saints defense has been burned by tight ends Visanthe Shaincoe of Minnesota, Vernon Davis of San Francisco and Tony Gonzales of Atlanta. Coming up this season is another game against Gonzales after Christmas, two games against Kellen Winslow of Tampa Bay, and other prolific pass-catchers like John Carlson of Seattle, Jason Witten of Dallas, Jermaine Gresham of Cincinnati.
Notes: S Roman Harper left the game in the second quarter with a right thigh contusion. He was replaced by Pierson Prioleau. Later in the quarter, CB Tracy Porter left the Falcons' 10-minute drive with a hamstring injury but returned later in the game... Brees also had a scary-looking left leg collision but never sought attention on the field. Trainers examined the knee on the bench after he was a bit gimpy and Brees said he was fine after the game... Late injuries to Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory left the Saints only with Ladell Betts at times, though he did not receive a carry...