November 29, 2012

Game Like Season - A Start Too Disastrous to Recover From

It was an NFC South grudge match on Thursday night primetime in the Georgia Dome.  The Saints were playing to keep their season alive.  The Falcons were playing to avenge a tough loss 14 days ago in New Orleans and to possibly clinch the division, pending Sunday's games.  A 23-13 Falcons win sent the teams rocketing in opposite directions.

Saints QB Drew Brees would turn in the worst performance of his NFL career, a career-high five interception debacle with a litany of poor decisions.  The future Hall of Famer is certainly the bellwether of his franchise.  The defensive struggle of a game would see the Saints defense hold the Falcons to 289 yards, including Matt Ryan to just 165 yards passing.  But crucial mistakes by Brees killed an otherwise productive day for the Saints offense, and also claimed the life of his NFL record streak of games with a touchdown pass.

After a terrible first quarter, a surprisingly dominant performance by the Saints defense would keep the game closer than it deserved to be.  The Falcons rolled up 100 yards of rushing in the first quarter but just 21 yards on the ground the rest of the game.  Stunningly, the Falcons didn't find a third down conversion until 6:57 left in the fourth quarter.

A disastrous start in this game mirrors the Saints' 2012 season - buried by an embarrassing start with an impressive middle.  But with the 5-7 Saints' playoff hopes all but gone, their last two losses have been capitalized by enormous mistakes from their franchise cornerstone.  Seven interceptions in the past two games torpedoed the Saints in two games against potential Super Bowl contenders, with little left to play for now.

After all but winning the first Saints-Falcons matchup, Saints TE Jimmy Graham was quiet on the day and committed a crippling penalty that took seven points off the board at the end of the first half.  Graham was held to just four catches for 59 yards as Lance Moore caught seven passes for 123 yards to lead all receivers.

On the first snap for the Falcons, Saints DT Sedrick Ellis whipped rookie RG Peter Konz and decked Ryan,  hitting his right arm and flattening him, forcing Ryan's pass to TE Tony Gonzales to flutter.  Saints FS Malcolm Jenkins missed a golden opportunity for a tone-setting interception, trying to catch it in his body instead of extending arms.  Instead, Gonzales stretched and ripped the ball away, gathering in the pass for an nine yard gain. On the next play, Jenkins would make another mistake as RB Michael Turner ripped off a 35-yard run, chucking a weak tackle body-blow by Jenkins and rumbling downfield.

The Falcons went straight down the field and scored with a six-play game-opening drive, with Turner plunging in from three yards out following back-to-back 14-yard runs by his backfield compliment Jacquizz Rodgers.  With 11:09 left in the first quarter, the Falcons had gone 80 yards for the opening score.

On the first play for the Saints, John Abraham put his helmet in the path of Drew Brees' first pass, bouncing it dangerously into the air towards the sideline, where it fell incomplete.  Brees second pass also went to the left, a dumpoff to Jed Collins that was a short two yard gain after which Collins was blasted by Dunta Robinson and Sean Weatherspoon.

Facing 3rd and 8, Brees fired authoritatively downfield into double coverage, where rarely-targeted Joe Morgan made a huge catch and survived a heavy hit from FS William Moore.  Falcons starting CB Asante Samuel appeared to reinjure his right shoulder on that play.

Two plays later, Brees challenged the Falcons secondary again, looking deep into the end zone for Marques Colston, who was open behind Robinson.  But Brees misjudged S Thomas DeCoud's closing speed, as DeCoud intercepted the pass in the end zone with Colston unable to slow his momentum.  Lance Moore raced in to tackle DeCoud in the end zone.

That was Brees' third game-opening interception of the season, and DeCoud's second interception off Brees. Ironically, the last time DeCoud intercepted Brees was the only time in eight games that the Falcons defense with DeCoud ever beat the Saints, in September of 2010.

After forcing a punt by the Falcons, the Saints took over and a run by Chris Ivory wide right lost four yards. After an incomplete pass to Henderson, Brees faced 3rd and 14 and found Marques Colston running towards the sideline in a pocket of the zone.  Colston caught Brees' perfectly-timed pass ahead of DeCoud for the first down.  But Brees couldn't keep the drive alive on 3rd and 2, throwing behind and away from Mr. Third Down, Lance Moore on the shallow slant.

After unwisely abandoning their run game in their first matchup against the Saints, the Falcons came out and established Turner in the ground game.  After a Morstead was downed inside the Falcon 10, Turner ripped off back to back runs of 12 yards to give Ryan breathing room.  But then, inexplicably, Ryan fired off three straight passes, each incomplete, two of them tipped by the Saints at the line.  The schizophrenic Falcons playcalling had again worked in the Saints' favor.

On the Falcons' second punt with 3:10 left in the first, Saints S Rafael Bush plowed into PR Darren Sproles after his fair catch signal.  CB Patrick Robinson grabbed the bounding ball at the Saint 12, where the Saints began their next drive.

The Saints had RT Zach Strief back healthy in the lineup, and the Falcons were sure to test his recovery from a lower abdominal injury.  Strief was beaten by DE Kroy Biermann, who hit Brees as he threw to force a three and out from the Saints near the end of the first quarter.

The Falcons took over at their own 49 and covered the distance in five plays, with Ryan throwing four straight incompletions, the last to TE Tony Gonzales, who made an incredible catch in the end zone over Saints MLB Curtis Lofton, his former teammate.  Up 14-0 at the beginning of the second quarter, the Falcons forced another three-and-out from Brees and looked to bury the Saints early.

The Saints recovered some momentum by forcing a quick Falcons punt, but gave it right back when Brees fired an outlet pass to RB Chris Ivory, who tried to make a one-handed catch but instead bounced it into the arms of LB Sean Weatherspoon, who made the interception and was dragged down by Ivory at the Saint 29.  Brees, furious, had completed 5 of 12 passes so far with two interceptions.

The defense stopped the Falcons on three plays, forcing a Matt Bryant 45-yard field goal to make it 17-0 with 8:53 left in the first half.  Despite a 17-0 lead, Ryan had completed only 6 of 14 passes for 66 yards, while his two runningbacks had 100 yards rushing in the first quarter.  From this point forward, the Saints defense would shut down the Falcons for the meat of the game, preventing the Falcons from converting a first down in the second quarter and would not allow a first down until under two minutes to go in the third quarter.  The Falcons would not convert a third down until there was just 6:57 left in the game.

Down 17-0, the Saints needed desperately to respond.  On 3rd and 9, Brees fired deep into traffic, where Lance Moore made an impossible catch on a perfect throw up to the Falcon 47, a 32-yard gain.  Three plays later on 3rd and 8, Brees found Marques Colston for 12, and three plays after that on 3rd and 2, Biermann jumped offsides for a five yard penalty.

Two plays later from the Falcon 10, Pierre Thomas ripped of a ten yard run and was tackled by his facemask near the goal line.  Initially ruled a touchdown, replay review put Thomas down at the 1, with the facemask penalty moving the ball half the distance.  On the next play, RB Mark Ingram leaped over the line for a one-yard score, his third of the season, bringing the Saints to 17-7 with 3:25 left in the half.  That 12-play, 80-yard drive was exactly what the Saints needed to regain the momentum, while the defense continued to pitch a shutout.

Another Falcon three and out later, and the Saints received a punt shortly before the two minute warning.  A 29-yard strike to Lance Moore, making another tough catch in traffic over the middle, put the Saints at the Falcon 42 at the two minute warning.  A 21-yard strike to Colston and a 14-yard strike to Sproles, the Saints had first and goal at the Falcon 7 with no timeouts and clock ticking.  Brees fired to Darren Sproles open in the right flat, and he sprinted into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.

But an offensive pass interference call against TE Jimmy Graham on the other side of the field nullified the score and moved the Saints back to the Falcon 17 with :45 left.  Usually proficient in the two minute warning, Brees made two terrible decisions, dumping off to Sproles over the middle underneath twice, each time Sproles was stopped in bounds.  The final seconds of the clock ticked off with the Saints at the Falcon 3 yard line, a golden opportunity blown.

The Saints received the second half kickoff and embarked on a 16-play drive that stalled at the Falcon 8 yard line.  Lance Moore dropped and easy touchdown pass over the middle on first down, a tragic drop for such a sure-handed receiver and a huge missed opportunity.  Two plays later on third down, yet another uncharacteristically bad decision by Brees put the ball in Sproles hands with no forward momentum short of the goal line, and the Saints had to kick a field goal from 21 yards out.

The visitors had all the momentum in the Georgia Dome, but the Falcons maintained a seven point lead after two goal line drives resulted in three points because of poor game management by the Saints offense.

The Falcons were against stopped for a three-and-out punt, and the Saints drove again down 17-10.  Three eight-yard runs by Pierre Thomas moved the Saints to the Falcon 34 but on 3rd and 2, Brees fired off of Colston's fingertips deep downfield.  Facing 4th and 2 or a long field goal, Joe Vitt opted for Garrett Hartley's leg from 52 yards out, and it paid off.  Cutting the lead to 17-13, the Saints defense followed it up with another forced three-and-out.

That's when the Falcons reclaimed momentum, picking off a poor decision by Brees who fired over the middle for Devery Henderson into zone coverage, where William Moore intercepted the pass and returned it to the Saint 41.  Brees' third pick of the night was the worst throw yet, with the Moore moving patiently and taking in Brees' pass in stride.

The Falcons finally picked up a first down with an 18-yard strike to Tony Gonzales and a 20-yard strike to Roddy White that set the Falcons up at the Saint 4.  But the Saints defense would hold, or rather, another offense would have red zone struggles.  A two-yard loss on a rush by Turner, a false start and an incomplete forced 3rd and 11.  Ryan threw into traffic for White, broken up by two Saints.

The chip shot field goal made it 20-13, but the Saints had prevented the doors from being blown off and held the game within one score.  Brees kept the next drive alive on 3rd and 5 with a 9-yard strike to Moore, and moved into Falcon territory with a brilliant catch and run by Jimmy Graham with John Abraham in coverage for 25 yards.  Sproles picked up nine on a dumpoff, opting to step out of bounds a yard short of the marker in a poor decision that would hurt the Saints.  Two plays later, Abraham ended the drive, sprinting right around right tackle Strief and hammering Brees on 3rd and 5 for a six yard loss.

At the Falcon 42, the Saints punted on 4th and 11 with 10:14 left.  Bad luck had CB Johnny Patrick touch the goal line with the edge of his foot, preventing the ball from being downed at the Falcon 1.  The touchback resulted in just a 22 yard punt.

Up by 7, the Falcons drove to midfield and faced 3rd and 8 near midfield, when Julio Jones picked up the Falcons' first third down conversion of the game by sprinting out of bounds for an 11-yard gain.  Two plays later, Curtis Lofton sniffed out a weak screen and dropped Jacquizz Rodgers for a six yard loss back at the Saint 43.  A dumpoff over the middle for six put the Falcons at the Saint 37 and forced a long field goal attempt.  But the damage had been done, the Falcons offense had bled off more than five minutes of clock.

With 4:29 left in the game, Matt Bryant put the Falcons up by 10 by nailing a 55-yard field goal.  Thanks to a quick start, the Falcons appeared to have enough momentum to survive the Saints, who had dominated the second and third quarters but had far too few points to show for it.

At the end of this game, on their pivotal drive that began with 4:19 left in the game, Brees' passes were fluttering and one-hopping to open receivers.

Was something wrong with Brees?  For all the horrors of the Saints' 2012 season, this was surely the worst.

On 3rd and 8, following Brees' underthrow of a wide open Henderson, Biermann ran right around RT Zach Strief, hit Brees, whose pass fell into the grasp of DT Jonathan Babineaux for Brees' fourth interception.

Two plays later, the Saints suddenly had a flash of hope.  Trying to bleed clock, the Falcons handed off to Michael Turner.  The Saints madly ripped at the ball on two straight plays.  Backup S Rafael Bush or DE Cam Jordan ripped the ball out with Vilma holding Turner's arms back.  Turner was clearly standing when he fumbled, and his forward motion had not been stopped.  Bush fell on the ball, got up and - lacking a whistle - raced to the end zone for an apparent 40-yard fumble return touchdown.  The scoring play was immediately reviewed to see if Bush was touched down.

Falcons G Mike Johnson appeared to jump on the pile, touching Bush with his left shoulderpad.  Bush was ruled to have forced the fumble and recovered, but with 2:17 left the apparent touchdown was not awarded.

Three plays later, Drew Brees threw a screen pass too close to DT Corey Peters for his apparently fifth interception.  But DE John Abraham was penalized for being offsides, wiping out the interception.

Determined, Brees would find a way to throw that fifth interception and cap the worst game of his career, underthrowing and underpowering a pass down the left sideline that was picked off by William Moore.  Brees finished 28/50 for 341 yards and for the first time since October 2009, did not throw a touchdown pass.  Maddeningly, Brees had one touchdown pass nullified by penalty and another dropped by Lance Moore.  Brees' touchdown pass game streak is dead at 54, an NFL record ever since he passed up Johnny Unitas' record of 47.   Patriots QB Tom Brady now owns the longest active streak at 43 games with a touchdown pass.

Falcons RB Jacquizz Rodgers gained a first down on two carries, and the 11-1 Falcons knelt away the final minute and a half.

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