After four blowout losses, the Falcons put together a stronger effort against their division rivals, with the result still being in doubt until the final minutes.
The Falcons had opportunities to win the game but failed to do so. With the extra time off before they go back on the road to face the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, they will try to figure out ways to take advantage of those opportunities next time.
For the first time in several games, the Falcons have a few more positives to build on, as well as some negatives they hope to get corrected.
In light of Falcons owner Arthur Blank needing to answer questions about the job security of his head coach, more fuel will be added to the fire that keeps Mike Smith's seat hot.
His decision to go for it on 4th-and-15 with 2:24 left in the fourth quarter at the Saints 34-yard line will draw scrutiny. It was the right decision given that the Falcons still had all three timeouts, and the chances that Bryant makes that 52-yard field goal seemed higher than the Falcons converting the fourth down.
Bryant has made 15 consecutive kicks inside the Georgia Dome and has made six consecutive kicks from beyond 50 yards. That includes a 55-yarder he hit during last season's home win over the Saints, so there was plenty of reason for Smith to have confidence in his kicker. There's reason to believe that the Falcons could have opted for an onside kick had Bryant's field goal been successful, rather than giving the ball back to the Saints.
Bryant made the kick initially, but it was nullified by a timeout called by Sean Payton. On his second attempt, Bryant's kick hooked wide left at the last moment.
But with the added scrutiny that will loom over Smith for the remainder of this season despite Blank's vote of confidence, this decision will be second-guessed and overexamined for the next 10 days until the Falcons play again.
Not only has Mike Smith faced added scrutiny this season, but so has his quarterback Matt Ryan—especially in light of his newfound status as one of the league's highest-paid quarterbacks.
Ryan has struggled in recent weeks with turnovers and erratic play. He rebounded somewhat against the Saints, completing 30 of 39 passes for 292 yards. He was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in sixteen games, dating back to last season.
But the performance gives the Falcons a bit more confidence that Ryan is finally gaining comfort with his receivers in the absence of Julio Jones. Ryan connected with nine different targets on the night.
If there is any major complaint about Ryan's performance, it was his decision to slide to avoid a hit on a red-zone scramble on 3rd-and-goal. It was unlikely that Ryan was going to get past Saints safety Roman Harper to score on the play, but it will have some folks questioning his toughness to go the extra mile.
Ryan can erase those doubts next week with a stronger performance against a tough Buffalo Bills defense.
But White's performance against the Saints was not one that will inspire a ton of confidence.
This week looked promising for the veteran receiver, who is still trying to work his way back from a high ankle sprain and hamstring injuries that have limited him this season. The reason for the optimism was due to White not appearing on the team's injury report for the first time this season, as he was able to fully participate in all three days of practice on the shortened week.
But White struggled to get open against Keenan Lewis, who held him to just two catches for 24 yards. The performance makes one questions whether White hasn't lost a step and how significant will be his impact down the stretch in 2013.
How White performs for the remainder of the season could directly effect his contract negotiations next year.
While Roddy White struggled, the Falcons other receivers did help pick up the slack on Thursday. Harry Douglas had another productive game, leading the team with nine catches for 79 yards.
But more surprising was the early emergence of Darius Johnson, who put forth his best effort of the season in the first half against the Saints. He took advantage of second-year cornerback Corey White, who was replacing injured starter Jabari Greer. Johnson led the Falcons at the half with five catches for 65 yards, but was slowed in the second half to only one catch for five yards.
Johnson had a critical drop on third down in the third quarter when he was wide open over the middle. He compounded that mistake in the fourth quarter with a game-changing fumble inside the red zone.
The Falcons appeared poised to take the lead at that point, but Johnson was stripped from behind by New Orleans Keyunta Dawson on a screen pass. White jumped on the loose ball, and the Saints were able to milk another five minutes off the clock on the next series.
Johnson, an undrafted rookie, will need to show some veteran poise next week to bounce back from the disappointing performance.
Last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, starting right guard Peter Konz was quickly replaced by Garrett Reynolds after giving up three sacks to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
The situation was the complete reverse on Thursday with Reynolds getting the start and being benched early thanks to getting similarly beat by Akiem Hicks. Konz entered the game and proved to be an upgrade.
That coupled with the team's inability to block Cameron Jordan for the second time this season meant that the Falcons' pass protection was problematic throughout the night. Jordan finished with half of the Saints' five sacks, and the right side of the Atlanta offensive line continues to give the Falcons trouble.
The Falcons will have a few extra days before their next game to try and figure out if further changes need to be made to their line as they seek a combination that can adequately protect Ryan.
A key for the Falcons in their attempt to slow down the Saints high-octane offense was getting pressure on Drew Brees. While the Falcons were successful in keeping New Orleans to the second-lowest point total of the season, they did so without much pressure.
Brees was sacked only once—that by defensive tackle Peria Jerry. The Falcons had ample opportunity and an exploitable matchup with New Orleans rookie Tim Lelito getting the start for an injured Jahri Evans. Lelito struggled when replacing Evans earlier this year against the Arizona Cardinals, but he held up well against a weaker Falcons pass rush.
The Falcons will continue to search for ways in which they can dial up much-needed pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Thursday's loss showed that the Falcons have yet to find a solution to their Jimmy Graham problem. The Pro Bowl tight end led the Saints with five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown.
That touchdown came on a 44-yard play in which he beat William Moore on a double move. Graham proceeded to celebrate his score with a dunk that forced a delay before a Georgia Dome employee could straighten the off-kilter goalpost.
It was an image that symbolized how effectively Graham has dominated the Falcons over the years. Atlanta seemed to find a solution a year ago when they held Graham out of the end zone for the first time since his rookie season in 2010. The pair of games in which Graham failed to score a touchdown also happen to be the only two games the Falcons have won against the Saints since 2010.
With this season's series over, the Falcons will have to go back to the drawing board in the offseason to try to find a way to contain Graham in future contests.
The Falcons defense gave up 100 or more rushing yards to their opponent for the eighth consecutive game.
Allowing 103 rushing yards to the Saints offense does represent improvement over the past four weeks, when the Falcons defense gave up an average of 182.3 yards on the ground.
But missed tackles resulted in a number of big runs for Pierre Thomas, who averaged 7.3 yards on 10 carries. When the Falcons needed to stuff the run, they failed to do so, allowing Thomas to burst up the middle 16 yards on what was essentially a game-sealing run with less than two minutes remaining.
The Falcons are hoping that introducing middle linebacker Paul Worrilow to the starting linep and getting back a healthier Sean Weatherspoon will lead to stronger results for the rest of the season. There is already reason to believe that things are headed in the right direction with tonight's performance.
While that effort did not get the job done against the Saints, there is plenty of reason to believe that things will be better for the Falcons against future opponents.