- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The aging center, who occasionally floats the idea of retirement, was sitting at his locker when the media throng came charging in.
There were recorders and cameras and Todd McClure politely asked if he should stand. He was told the choice was his. He stayed seated.
“This was a character win,’’ McClure said as the sweat of a 27-24 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints continued to pour off him with his four offensive linemates all sitting nearby silently, but in similar situations.
“I think that’s a good way to describe it,’’ quarterback Matt Ryan said. “There’s probably not a better guy on our team when it comes to character than Todd McClure.’’
That’s appropriate, because what the Falcons did Sunday in the Superdome is precisely what the 33-year-old McClure has been doing throughout his 12-year NFL career. No matter what happened, the Falcons just kept pushing forward.
What the blue-collar effort led to was something that certainly wasn’t blue collar. The Falcons came into the Superdome and defeated the defending Super Bowl champions in a game that could have been lost several times over.
“It was a character win,’’ middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “It was a fight like I’ve never been in. We punched them in the mouth. They punched us in the mouth. We both kept getting up. They’ve got lots of character too, but we came out with the win this time. We’re not the same team as last year.’’
Lofton nailed that one on many levels. The Falcons aren’t the same team that went 9-7 and finished second in the NFC South to the Saints last season.
“We’re a different football team than we were last year, as are they,’’ Ryan said.
The Falcons are different. There is no question now they’re a better team than they were last season. Is it time to say the tide has turned in the NFC South?
No, there’s no way you can write the Saints off after one loss. New Orleans also played a strong game all the way around. The Saints are 2-1 and the Falcons are 2-1. So are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but water has a way of finding its own level over time.
But what we can take out of Sunday for certain is that there actually will be an NFC South race this year. It’s not going to be like last year when the Saints coasted by winning their first 13 games and the Falcons, despite a bunch of injuries, had to struggle to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
What’s different is that, a year ago, the Saints would have won this game. They actually did -- twice. The Falcons rose up and played New Orleans well in the Superdome and Georgia Dome and lost close games both times.
The Falcons are healthy now and they used the offseason to get better on defense and better in a lot of areas.
“We felt confident coming down here and we played confident all day,’’ Ryan said.
That was established in the second quarter. With New Orleans holding a 14-7 lead and marching, Drew Brees made what might have been his first truly bad play since he joined the Saints. Under heavy pressure from an Atlanta pass rush that’s showing signs of life this season, Brees tried to underhand a pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham.
Instead, Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud grabbed the ball for an interception. That started a drive that we might point to at the end of the season as the moment the tide changed in the NFC South.
With 11:42 left in the first half, the Falcons began a drive that showed their true offense is a lot more like it looked in last week’s 41-7 victory against Arizona than it did in a disappointing season-opening loss to Pittsburgh.
The Falcons ran 19 plays and covered 72 yards over 10 minutes and 39 seconds. They did it by being successful in the running game and the passing game, and coach Mike Smith, at least for a day, replaced New Orleans’ Sean Payton as the NFC South’s luckiest gambler.
Twice on the drive, the Falcons faced fourth-down situations in New Orleans territory. Twice, Smith -- who never has had Payton’s reputation as a risk-taker -- decided to go for it. Twice, his calls paid off, with Ryan finding Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez for critical first downs.
The drive ended with Turner plunging in from a yard out for a touchdown that tied the score just before halftime.
“When we got back out there in the third and fourth quarter, you could see their defense wearing down,’’ said White, whose 22-yard touchdown catch with 9:20 left in regulation gave the Falcons a 24-21 lead that they would hold until there were four seconds left in regulation.
That’s when Garrett Hartley forced the overtime with a 32-yard field goal. For a few minutes it looked like everything would return to just like last year. After forcing the Falcons to punt, Drew Brees did his thing and marched the Saints down the field.
With 9:02 left in overtime, Hartley, a hero of the 2009 postseason and this year’s opener against Minnesota, somehow missed a 29-yard field-goal attempt that would have ended things.
The Falcons then put together a drive that looked a lot like the one at the end of the first half, and it ended when Matt Bryant made a 46-yard field goal with 1:55 left in overtime. That gave the Falcons their first win in New Orleans since 2002 and their first road victory against the Saints since 2005, when they played at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
“This is like a rivalry,’’ White said.
No, it’s much more than a rivalry right now. New Orleans and Atlanta are fighting for supremacy in the NFC South and maybe even in the entire NFC. That makes for good games, provides an edginess and even brings out superstitions.
White didn’t even watch Bryant’s winning field goal. He just waited for the crowd to tell him.
“Silence,’’ White said. “You like silence, don’t you? Me too, especially on the road.’’
Silence in the Superdome was the most beautiful noise the Falcons could have heard Sunday.