Familiar foe hands Falcons their first loss

It’s hard not to think that the New Orleans Saints have the Atlanta Falcons’ number.

Even with the Falcons’ entering as the NFL’s last unbeaten team in Week 10 of the NFL season and the Saints at 3-5, New Orleans registered its fourth straight victory over its NFC South archrival, 31-27, on Sunday at the Superdome.

It’s a cliché to say the records don’t mean anything in a rivalry game, but in this one it proved true. As many changes as the Falcons have made entering this season — a more explosive offense, a more unpredictable defense that uses myriad ways to get pressure on the quarterback — this game resembled so many of the Falcons’ other defeats at the hands of the Saints in recent years.

Both teams scored five times. The Saints had four touchdowns and a field goal while the Falcons had three touchdowns and two field goals — that whole trading a field goal for a touchdown thing has gotten the Falcons beaten so many times during Mike Smith’s tenure as Falcons’ coach against New Orleans. It’s a major reason why the Falcons traded up to take Julio Jones in 2011 and made the changes they have.

As amazing of a mark as Smith has had during his five seasons in Atlanta — he owns a .699 winning percentage and his 51 wins are the most in franchise history — the Saints have bedeviled him. Smith is 2-7 against his nemesis. In two of those losses in recent years, one in 2010 and Sunday’s, the Falcons entered with the best record in the NFC, but still could not defeat the Saints. The lone victory the Falcons own against the Saints in the last four seasons came when Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed a short field goal attempt in overtime in ‘10.

That is among the reasons why this loss will haunt the Falcons, but it could have been much worse. Losing to a rival hurts more — especially in a game when you’re favored to win — but down 28-17 in the third quarter, the Falcons could have been blown out and that would have humiliated them, as many outside observers might have written them off as a paper tiger that had only beaten bad teams.

Instead, they rallied and quarterback Matt Ryan had the Falcons positioned to take the lead in the final minutes. He looked like he had a touchdown pass to Harry Douglas at the two-minute warning that would have put Atlanta on top 33-31, but Malcolm Jenkins and Johnny Patrick, Douglas’ teammate in college at Louisville, tackled the Falcon at the 1-yard line.

Then, the Falcons had three plays to get one yard against a defense that had given up more yards than any in the history of the NFL through its first seven games. On the next play, Ryan threw incomplete to Tony Gonzalez. On third down, running back Michael Turner was stopped for a 1-yard loss by a defense that was allowing 176.5 rushing yards per game. Turner, who led the NFC in rushing last season, finished with 15 yards on 13 carries. On the critical play of the game, Saints cornerback Jabari Greer broke up a pass headed for Roddy White and New Orleans took over. If Ryan had led White perhaps a yard more, he might have had a touchdown.

Still, Ryan threw for a career-high 411 yards. This loss was about more than that play. The Falcons failed to convert third-and-1 and third-and-2 on numerous occasions — too many, really. It was a reminder of last year’s playoff loss against the New York Giants when the Falcons could not convert similar distances on fourth down. Those are the kinds of failings that will prevent many from taking the Falcons seriously as a Super Bowl contender — until they can prove that they can convert them.

The Falcons had one more series in the final seconds and again failed twice to convert when they needed one lonely, measly yard. So instead of potentially putting a nail in the coffin of the Bounty-gate-addled Saints, New Orleans, having won four out of five — the same as the Falcons — is resurgent.

At 8-1, the Falcons still have the inside track to win the division and can accomplish virtually all of the goals they set for themselves this season. Still, this game has the feel that the Saints have the Falcons’ number.