The New Orleans Saints moved to 9-2 after beating the Atlanta Falcons, 17-13, Thursday night. The win was another notch in the belt that head coach Sean Payton’s used to whip on the Falcons since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006. With the win, the Saints maintain a 1.5-game cushion over the Carolina Panthers (7-3) in the NFC South race.
But should the Saints really feel good leaving Atlanta after struggling in what essentially should have been a gimme win?
Entering the game, the Falcons were ranked 22nd in pass defense and 30th in run defense, giving up 249.2 and 132.7 yards per game, respectively. The Saints poured on 271 yards through the air and 103 on the ground. Neither output was a poor showing, but the Saints should have been good for more—especially on the ground, considering the Falcons have given up an average of 176 yards rushing over the last three weeks.
Where the Saints really came up short was on the scoreboard. New Orleans only put up 17 points on a Falcons team that allowed an average of 36 points to its previous three opponents (including 41 points last week to the 1-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
New Orleans’ 17-point effort was its second-lowest scoring total of the season, just ahead of its Week 2 total of 16 points against the Buccaneers. Five times this season New Orleans has scored more than 30 points, and the team is only two weeks removed from its 49-point explosion against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Saints were ranked second in the NFL coming into the game with their 28.8-point scoring average. The Falcons were 29th and gave up 29.2 points per game on defense. A 17-13 win seems like a letdown for Sean Payton's squad.
New Orleans will have 11 days to think about Thursday’s underwhelming win. The Saints don’t take the field again until Monday, Dec. 2 when the team travels to Seattle to take on the Seahawks. When they do take that field again, the Saints need to be ready for one of the toughest four-week stretches on anyone’s schedule.
Not only do the Saints face off against the 10-1 Seahawks, the NFC’s current top seed, they then come home to face the red-hot Panthers, afterward traveling to St. Louis to play the Rams and Charlotte to face the Panthers again.
Over the next four contests, New Orleans will play three games against two of the stingiest defenses in the NFL. No team in the league gives up fewer points than the Panthers (13.5 PPG). The Seahawks rank third and only give up 16.3 points per game.
The Saints only mustered 17 points against the lowly Falcons. It must be a disheartening experience to think how futile it will be if they can't work out the kinks against the Seahawks and Panthers.
What were the kinks? That’s the problem—there really weren’t any. After the game, Payton praised his team for a “hard-fought win.” In a rivalry game like this, he said he knew heading in that nothing was a given.
“Regardless of the record, it has always been a close game and tonight was no exception,” said Payton. “I thought in all three areas we did a lot of things well. Ball security was going to be important and I don’t think either team turned the ball over.”
The Saints played virtually mistake-free football and succeeded in all three phases of the game. But did this win feel like a quality win that a team could build on before it moves into a dangerous portion of its schedule?
“Feel” is hard to substantiate, but it didn’t “feel” like the Saints were a dominating team on the field Thursday. It was a pretty uninspired effort against a poor 2-8 team.
Rob Ryan’s defense has been the toast of the town this season. Its aggressive play has helped turn New Orleans from a 7-9 afterthought to a potential Super Bowl participant. But the Saints were only able to force one turnover in Atlanta against a team that had turned the ball over 12 times in the last four games. Only five teams in the NFL have coughed the ball up more than Atlanta this season.
The New Orleans defense looked flat. It held Matt Ryan and Atlanta to only 13 points, so it was definitely effective, but flat.
Look at the AFC matchup of powerhouse teams last week. When the Denver Broncos beat the then-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, there was no question that Denver looked dominating doing so. The 27-17 finish wasn’t a convincing win on the scoreboard, but Denver clearly looked like the better team.
It’s hard to say that about New Orleans’ Thursday night win. It was still a W, but was this Week 12 game really the prelude the Saints were looking for before their murderous schedule ahead?
If the Panthers win Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins, they’ll move to 8-3, just one game behind the Saints.
It’s a brutal stretch coming up for New Orleans, and Thursday’s win wasn’t a comfortable tuneup for what’s ahead. Are the Saints a Super Bowl-caliber team? We don’t know the answer to that question any more now than we did before the Saints and Falcons kicked off.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.