The porridge was neither cold nor hot for the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, as Sean Payton's men stormed into a turbulent Georgia Dome atmosphere, only to find themselves with a "just right" mix of offense and defense against a persistent 12-2 Atlanta Falcons.
Calling the game a blowout?
That seemed to be the logical sequence of thought prior to kickoff. In a rare turn of events though, the Saints and Falcons rallied to a low-scoring defensive affair, that was accompanied by an unusual amount of blitzes and wobbly quarterback rushes that were enough to make this matchup a classic NFC South showdown.
In the opening drives of the game, neither team managed to muster up much of a challenge. The punting team was sent onto the field numerous times in the early goings, and after a handful of 3-and-outs by both sides, most folks got the feeling they were in for a drawn out affair.
Boy, were they right.
Heading into the game knowing full well that a postseason spot was guaranteed with a win over the NFC's best, the Saints looked to utilize their often troubling passing game early by firing up Drew Brees under center.
The usual targets of Marques Colston and Devery Henderson struggled in the early goings for New Orleans, but somehow, the Saints seemed to navigate away from their usual stars, and instead relied on Robert Meachem and Lance Moore for most of the game.
Both Meachem and Moore combined for 149 yards total on Monday night, and even though the Saints remained scoreless in the air besides tight end Jimmy Graham's brilliance, Drew Brees was left counting his blessings after such a top shelf performance.
As for Atlanta, Mike Smith saw fit to take on the opposite approach, and instead, condition running back Michael Turner quickly and surely on the Falcons opening drive, knowing full well that the Saints seventh rank defense is highly confident right now.
So far this season Turner has rushed for 1,256 yards and 11 touchdowns, and with Turner's repertoire made up of short draw plays and "up the gut runs" all season long, this game looked to be another milestone for the Falcons seventh year rusher.
Fortunately for Saints fans though, New Orleans' 21st rank rush defense knocked the socks off Mike Smith. Turner was dropped all night long, and with just 48 yards to his name, the Falcons were dealt a mild scare with one week remaining in the regular season.
Then, the fun finally began.
Excluding a rather boring first quarter, the second passage of play opened up the game entirely, with the Saints backing themselves with a Pierre Thomas 3-yard touchdown run following some typical Drew Brees-like passing.
Still, this wasn't enough to silent the NFC's top dog.
The scoreline reading 10-0, the Falcons found themselves in an unfamiliar jam midway through the second quarter, but fashionably located their rowdy wide receiver, Roddy White, for a 7-yard touchdown pass to bring it back to 10-7 a piece.
And the third quarter?
No scoring to speak of, other than the fact that Mike Tirico labeled Drew Brees' backward Brett Favre-like shovel pass, "The best no-gain of the year", as No. 9 located Pierre Thomas on 3rd-and-6 midway through the third.
What about the fourth?
Things quickly got interesting from here on out.
After pulling off a seemingly unthinkable pass, Drew Brees then attempted another Favre-like play, only to find himself experiencing the best of both worlds of the 20-year veteran, tossing up a pick six to defensive end Chauncey Davis early in the quarter.
With nerves certainly acting up, the following stretch of plays were both memorable and forgettable for each franchise, following another interception from Brees and what looked to be a game-sealing drive from the Atlanta Falcons.
However, that wasn't to be.
Instead of putting his team up by 11 points, the Falcons were forced to punt with 10 minutes remaining, gifting the Saints the ball once again. Drew Brees marched down the field after a solid passing display to the likes of Devery Henderson and Lance Moore, to set the Saints up close to the goal line.
One touchdown later to Jimmy Graham, and the Saints were on the verge of victory.
Matt Ryan followed up Drew Brees' game winner to ill affect, after being amped up by the Georgia Dome faithful as Matt Ice. Three times this year Ryan has been responsible for gifting the Falcons a late-game winner, but against the Falcons bitter rivals, Ryan was far from cold on Monday night.
Drew Brees wound up with 302 yards and one touchdown on the day, and as unfortunate as his two interceptions were, the Saints now clinch a playoff berth along with remaining eligible to still win the NFC South.
Despite Matt Ryan's late woes, the Falcons star didn't hurt his MVP chances at all, passing for 148 yards and one touchdown.
The loss sends Atlanta reeling towards next week when John Fox and the Carolina Panthers come to town. It is obvious to all that Fox would like nothing better than to upset the Falcons ahead of the postseason, so expect the Panthers to attempt an upset on the weekend.
New Orleans on the other hand have been granted an opportunity to defend their Super Bowl crown. The playoffs are a certainty now, and even though one game remains against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, no sleep will be lost on Sean Payton's part.
A few kinks were highlighted for both teams, and it appears that when Michael Turner is limited, the Falcons do struggle against some of the NFC's harsher opponents.
There's nothing to say that these two teams won't meet again in the coming weeks, and if some old school Southern cooking is up for display again, expect a hotly contested affair.
For now, the Saints pinch a victory from the seemingly perfect Atlanta Falcons—a loss that could potentially derail Mike Smith's team if a slip-up is endured next weekend against the 2-13 Carolina Panthers.
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