ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons might have had the best record in the NFC but the prospect of losing both games this season to arch-rival New Orleans — a team that had beaten them four in a row and seven out of nine in Falcons’ head coach Mike Smith’s tenure — rankled.
During the week, former Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton, in his first year with the Saints, dismissed the fact that the teams share a rivalry and after the previous meeting Saints linebacker Scott Shanle referred to the Falcons as New Orleans’ “little brother.”
Adding fuel to the fire, the Saints’ bus was egged upon the team’s arrival at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday.
So earning a 23-13 win over the Saints in which Atlanta’s defense generated a career-high five interceptions of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, two by Atlanta safety William Moore, on Thursday proved satisfying in more than one way. The Falcons also snapped Brees’ NFL-record of throwing a touchdown in 54 consecutive games.
“They’ve had our number,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “No doubt about that. They’ve had our number and it’s good, it feels really, really good to come out and get that victory. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say we had thoughts going the way of getting a loss again. We jumped out to that lead. It crept up into our minds — at least my mind on the sideline.
“I still had faith. All the credit to that defense. The way our defense played today, coming up with those turnovers against a guy like Drew Brees, holding them to 13 points. That is something special.”
The Falcons (11-1) gashed the Saints on the opening drive of the game for 71 rushing yards and made the game look like it could be a laugher with a quick touchdown. The Falcons went up two touchdowns 52 seconds into the second quarter but then sputtered in a major way, failing to convert a third down until 6:30 remained in the game.
In the 31-27 loss on Nov. 11 at New Orleans — Atlanta’s only defeat of the season — the Falcons led 10-0 early so Gonzalez had good reason to doubt.
But after New Orleans came within 17-13 the Falcons pulled away and sealed it with two interceptions in the final 3:29, including one by defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and Moore’s second.
Still, Gonzalez might not have been the only Falcon to want to get the proverbial monkey off his back.
“I think it means a lot,” center Todd McClure said of the win. “A little bit selfishly for me, being from Louisiana. I go back home all offseason and that’s all I hear about. You play them twice a year.
“Mentally, to have that mindset, to know in the back of your mind that you can beat those guys is huge. That’s a great team. Their offense is unbelievable. No. 9 (Brees) is one of the best to ever play the game but it was just a big win.”
Rivalries being rivalries — Atlanta’s sports talk radio airwaves were filled all week with fans anguished at the thought of another loss to the Saints — the victory also provided the double bonus of seriously jeopardizing the Saints’ playoff hopes, which are starting to smell like, say, rotten eggs.
The Saints fell to 5-7, and while they might only lag 1½ games behind Seattle for the final wild-card berth, four teams are sandwiched between the Saints and Seahawks. It’s a tough climb.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, poster boy for the anti-Saints campaign, agreed that the win helped to accomplish a practical goal.
“Absolutely, you don’t want those guys to slip into the playoffs, especially with that kind of offense and knowing how potent those guys can be,” White said. “They can score so many points on offense. You want to get those guys out of the way and not have one of those instances where they slip into the playoffs and they get hot.
“That’s been the theme for the last three or four years. Teams just get hot and they go all the way to the Super Bowl.”
Not every Falcon was of that mindset. Defensive end John Abraham said the trash talk all week was just that: talk.
“I’m 34 years old, 13 years in the league, I’m getting a win,” he said. “All that trash-talking is fine. They can talk all that trash they want to. It don’t matter until you get on the field and game’s over and in the left column you got a ‘W’ instead of an ‘L.’”
Cornerback Dunta Robinson said Thursday morning the Falcons had a meeting that ended watching the Saints take a knee to seal their victory 18 days ago. The Falcons didn’t want that feeling this time around.
“We were ready and prepared and we were ready to dominate this game,” Robinson said, “and that was our mindset coming in.”
The difference is that for the first time in a long time, they proved it.