On Thursday night, the New Orleans Saints kicked off Week 6 by humbling the the then undefeated Atlanta Falcons. It was equal parts stunning and thrilling. All of the experts had Atlanta beating the downtrodden Saints, as did some Saints fans, unfortunately myself included. The Saints beat the Falcons 31-21 on Thursday night, and there was plenty of crow to go around. Here was my pick for the game, posted Wednesday morning:
Yours truly is eating as much crow as anyone else, and I will gladly clean the plate and ask for seconds. Unlike Andrew Juge, I didn't have faith that this team could do what many of its predecessors had done before under Payton and Brees, beat the Falcons in primetime. The 2015 Saints had shown no indication that they were healthy enough, veteran enough, or frankly, talented enough to beat a motivated and undefeated rival merely four days after suffering their worst defeat of the season in Philadelphia. This wasn't like the teams that had asserted their dominance over Atlanta, they were different.
It wasn't just the Saints, the Falcons were supposedly different as well. A new head coach, Dan Quinn, replacing Sean Payton's whipping boy, Mike Smith. Quinn, who had dominated the Saints during his short-but-successful tenure as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, had turned the Falcons defense from the worst in football in 2014 to an opportunistic and cagey unit in 2015. Quinn, just like his predecessor, fell into the trappings of "The Saints Game", the thing the Falcons and their fans fear and covet the most.
If I am wrong about this point, why did the Falcon fans (all seven of them) seem to put so much into a game against a 1-4 team, why did they proclaim the downfall of the Saints and the rise of the Falcons as the perennial NFC South power, so vociferously in the run-up to this game. Because they not only wanted this game, they needed this game. The Falcons swept the Saints last year, but the Payton/Brees Saints still hold a staggering advantage over the Falcons during their tenure. There was plenty of crow to go around on Thursday night, and plenty of mouths to feed.
Despite the Falcons' 2014 success against the Saints, many of the players on the roster still carry scars from previous failures against the Saints, most notably team leader and quarterback Matt Ryan. When your quarterback carries those kind of scars, the ghosts of the not-very-distant past can be a lot to overcome. It's easy to overlook or discount the amount of pressure that was on Matt Ryan going into the game, and stunning to see the amount of pressure he faced during it.
Ghosts, spirits, call them/it what you will, but there was definitely something in that building on Thursday night. To this point, the Saints hadn't given any indication that they could perform with that amount of competence and intensity this season. Yet we all witnessed it in all its glory, and glorious it was. The blocked punt by Michael Mauti was beautiful and serendipitous, it brought the crowd to a fever pitch, it got the team to another level, and it marked the beginning of the end for the Falcons that night. The Saints showed the kind of skill, pride, and heart in that game that they just couldn't locate during the first five weeks of the season.
That was the biggest takeaway I had from Thursday night's game, that the Saints still had that in them. That a weakened Drew Brees and a maligned Sean Payton could still do what they've done so many times before. That the Superdome crowd, despite all the losses they've witnessed over the last year, could still erupt and sustain with such ferocity that they could help carry the team when they needed a lift. That magic is still alive and well in that resilient building just off Poydras and Claiborne.
Are the Falcons going to finish the 2015 season with a better record than the Saints and earn a playoff berth? Who knows, honestly, but it's more likely than not. But that didn't matter Thursday night, the Saints proved without a doubt that they still have Atlanta's number. Atlanta will win some every now and then, but New Orleans owns this era, they've been the better team and the better franchise. With all the cards in Atlanta's favor for this game, they folded like they've done so many times prior. But remember, before you go around saying things like "The Falcons always choke" it's usually the Saints' boots that are on their throats. It take two to tango, and the Saints lead this dance every time.
The season will now go on, and it may play out in the NFL's predictably unpredictable manner, but the Saints and Falcons will meet again in Week 17 in Atlanta, and who knows what may be on the line in that one. Well, we know that one thing will definitely be on the line, as it always is, pride. The Saints made themselves, the city of New Orleans, and the Who Dat Nation as a whole, proud against the Falcons on Thursday night.
We will never again enjoy the glory of Mike Smith's red-faced, headphone smashing anger, but we still continue to have Arthur Blank's equally fantastic look of bewilderment and crushing disappointment. And for that I am grateful to the Saints.