NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As Jimmy Graham came down with a catch over the middle with his feet just short of the goal line, the star tight end began writhing in an effort to find just enough leverage to force his way through two Atlanta defenders and into the end zone.
Short of using the type of goal-line technology employed in certain soccer and tennis matches, it may be tough to know if Graham did enough to score before safety Kemal Ishmael ripped the ball loose and made a momentum-swinging fumble recovery. And regardless of how long debate rages, it won’t change the fact that New Orleans lost the game, 30-14, and was eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday.
"Did I think it was a score? Yes," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It looked pretty clear and yet — look — it is what it is, right? … It’s disappointing."
Atlanta (6-9) next meets Carolina (6-8-1) for the NFC South title next week in the Georgia Dome. The Saints (6-9) are left with an anticlimactic visit to Tampa Bay after losing five straight at home in one season for the first time since the 1980 1-15 team.
Graham’s forward progress appeared to have been stopped by safety Dezmen Southward and Ishmael before the ball came loose, but that was not reviewable.
One replay angle showed that the ball may have broken the plane of the goal line, and the Superdome crowd roared when it was shown on large video boards. However, referee John Parry could not find evidence conclusive enough to overturn the call. Parry’s announcement spawned a cascade of boos from anxious Saints fans, whose team remained down 20-7 with its playoff hopes fading.
"There was nothing clear and undisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field," Parry said.
Graham was not present when locker rooms were opened to reporters.
Southward said he never had a good look at whether Graham got in.
"I was too busy putting my face in his ribs. I was just trying to keep him out," Southward said. "All that credit goes to Kemal, obviously coming in and not quitting on the play."
Brees said he thought Graham scored, calling the consequences of the ruling, "huge."
While the play was a momentum changer, the Saints might have lost anyway.
After not practicing or playing for about two weeks, Jones caught seven passes for 107 yards.
"For him to gut it out and to go play the way he did today, I think speaks volumes about his grit, his toughness but also showcases what a stud he is," said quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown.
Falcons running back Devonta Freeman added a 31-yard score.
The Saints committed three turnovers in the fourth quarter and were eliminated officially with Carolina’s victory over Cleveland.
New Orleans still had a chance to drive for a winning score in the final three minutes, but Robert McClain’s interception in Saints territory set up a Falcons field goal.
Payton thought his defense was "good enough" against Atlanta’s respected offense, adding, "Offensively, we weren’t good enough."
Atlanta sacked Brees five times. Brees finished 30 of 47 for 313 yards and one touchdown to Graham, which pulled the Saints as close as 20-14 with 5:48 to go. Brees was also intercepted by Desmond Trufant on a fourth-down pass in the first half.
In the final seconds, Osi Umenyiora returned Brees’ fumble for an 86-yard TD, turning and waving goodbye to Atlanta’s long-time rivals as he trotted downfield.
The result brought forth a devastating realization for the Saints, who’d sought a fifth playoff berth in six seasons.
"As we walk out of this stadium, every person you see, you feel like you let that guy down today, and that’s tough," right tackle Zach Strief said. "We deserve it. We got exactly what we deserved."
Seeking to fire up the home crowd in a crucial game, the Saints changed their introductions, turning off the house lights during a pyrotechnic display while fans held up their mobile phones as if at a concert.
Fans were in a frenzy when Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up Mark Ingram’s 1-yard touchdown run.
But those celebrations were short-lived as the Falcons scored the next 20 points.
"It’s disappointing to know that with two games left we controlled our own destiny," Brees said. "If we win we’re in, and we were not able to do that."