The prevailing theme on the Atlanta side was that they were somewhat soft and could not close out games or put teams away.
Moreover, the Falcons were dealt their first and only loss to date in 2012 three weeks ago to these same Saints.
In that game, Atlanta appeared to be exposed as a bit of a paper tiger.
They set out to prove the experts wrong this time around, and they left a strong impression for observers to ponder.
While the performance wasn’t great and the victory wasn’t dominant, Atlanta handled New Orleans and won a very important game.
With the win, the Falcons clinched the NFL’s first overall playoff spot and positioned themselves to win the division with a Week 13 Tampa loss and remained the leader for the top seed and home field advantage in the NFC.
A closer look reveals that Atlanta flipped the script for success this week, including some notable individuals.
Let’s dig into the winners and losers for Atlanta.
Sometimes, numbers do indeed tell the story.
The Falcons’ defense played perhaps their most complete of the season.
They intercepted Drew Brees five times, the most of his career in a single game.
A defense that was gashed by New Orleans for 148 rushing yards just three weeks prior held the Saints to only 101 yards rushing.
In Week 10 Atlanta surrendered 31 points to the saints, but only 13 in this game.
It was a complete turnaround by Mike Nolan’s unit, which was patently outclassed the last time these teams meet.
Atlanta entered week 13 as the NFL’s 2nd ranked passing offense at 298 yards game.
In their second meeting of the season the Falcons were only able to muster 159 yards passing; this after a 408 performance in game one against New Orleans.
From the beginning the pass offense just never got of the ground.
Matt Ryan, the league’s second rated passer in total yards and yards per game was held 147 yards below his normal passing yards per game, completed seven fewer passes than his per game average and threw for only one touchdown.
Roddy White, the team’s leading receiver in receptions, total receiving yards and yards per game coming into the game was held to only one reception.
Julio Jones, the team’s leading receiver in yards per reception and touchdowns was held well below his 16.7 yard average and was kept out of the end zone.
The lack of prowess through the air kept Atlanta from extending their lead early and running away with the game late.
Having scored 13 unanswered points spanning the final six minutes of the first half through the first 12 minutes of the second half, momentum was fully with the Saints.
That all changed when safety William Moore intercepted Drew Brees, Atlanta’s third pick of Brees in the game.
The interception led to a Falcons’ field goal, giving Atlanta a seven point lead with just over fourteen minutes to play.
Moore's interception was the play of the game as momentum swung to the Falcons as they scored the final six points of the game.
To cap a sensational performance, Moore intercepted Brees a second time with two minutes to play to seal the victory.
Atlanta’s offensive coordinator has been masterful all season long.
He has helped turn the Falcons into a big play, big score offense; doing so while overcome the lack of a consistently productive run game.
He has put Ryan, White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez at the top of the league in overall production.
However, for the first time this season, the Falcons didn’t appear to have any rhythm once the Saints weathered an initial storm that saw Atlanta jump out to a 14-0 lead.
Atlanta jumped to that lead with a new dedication to the run game that caught New Orleans off guard.
Once the lead was in place, Koetter shelved the run game and turned to a passing game that never took off.
The result was a disjointed offense just trying to protect the lead and support a great defensive effort.
Once Koetter returned to a focus on the run in the fourth quarter the Falcons were able to move the ball with enough consistency to turn turnovers into points, maintain positive field position and keep Brees and company off the field.
Coming off a miserable performance against Tampa Bay, with two missed field goals, Matt Bryant found redemption with 4:30 left on the game clock in the fourth quarter when he connected on a 55-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 10-point lead.
At the time, New Orleans had been driving the ball deep into Atlanta territory since the second quarter and a two-score lead appeared imperative.
In the end, the defense never allowed New Orleans to legitimately threaten again.
However, facing the 10-point deficit the Saints were left without the luxury of balance on offense.
Brees was forced to throw the football which allowed to the Falcons being able to play the pass.
Eventually, Brees threw an interception on his final pass which sealed the victory for Atlanta.