NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation: Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Power Rankings: No. 4 Atlanta Falcons

September, 10, 2013
A weekly examination of the Falcons’ Power Ranking:

Preseason: 4 | Last Week: 2 | Power Ranking since 2002

The Atlanta Falcons tumbled only two spots after a close loss to New Orleans Saints on the road.

That’s not a great start for a team that I picked to win the Super Bowl. But I also predicted the Falcons would lose to the Saints in the opener. My thinking was based on the crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome being fired up by the return of coach Sean Payton after last season’s suspension.

It was, and the Saints rode the wave of emotion. But it’s not time for the Falcons to panic and it’s not time for voters to drop them out of the top five.

This is still a very good team and the loss in New Orleans was only a minor speed bump. In fact, it might even have served as a wake-up call for the Falcons.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 1

September, 9, 2013
A review of the hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 23-17 victory against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Bill HaberCoach Sean Payton said Rob Ryan's new defensive scheme helped rejuvenate the Saints in 2013.
Payton’s return: Coach Sean Payton was back after missing last season while serving a suspension for the bounty scandal. There’s no question Payton’s presence gave his team a boost. But it went deeper than that. The Superdome crowd is always loud, but it was even more of a factor as it welcomed Payton back.

Maybe the defense is better: It was only one game, but coordinator Rob Ryan seems to have the defense headed in the right direction. Holding Atlanta’s offense to 17 points is a pretty major accomplishment. And the defense came through with a huge interception at the end of the game to seal the victory. If the defense can play like this all season, the Saints could be very dangerous.

The offense was mediocre: Everything’s relative when you’re talking about the New Orleans offense. But it’s fair to say this unit didn’t have a great day Sunday. The good news is the defense stepped up, and you can’t count on the offense slumping for long.

Observation deck: Saints-Chiefs

August, 9, 2013

For those of you who thought coordinator Rob Ryan could come in and turn around the New Orleans Saints' defense overnight, think again.

This chore is going to take some time. That was apparent in Friday night’s 17-13 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Kansas City first-team offense, which wasn’t very good last year, had no problem marching 80 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game. The Chiefs also got a field goal on the second drive, when the starters still were on the field. I did see some good moments by the defense, particularly the pass rush, later in the game when the starters were out.

But Ryan needs to use the next few weeks to get this defense ready for the regular season.

Some other observations on the Saints:

With Marques Colston sitting, rookie receiver Kenny Stills got the start. He didn’t have a great night. He dropped a deep pass from Drew Brees and also was called for offensive pass interference.

The Saints handed the ball to Mark Ingram on the first two plays of the game. I think that’s a sign of things to come. The Saints have said they want to run the ball more often and they want Ingram more involved in the offense.

Rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins, who has had a nice camp, recorded a sack of Chase Daniel. Jenkins has had a nice camp and could end up with a spot in the rotation.

Charles Brown got the start at left tackle and didn’t seem to have any major problems. But rookie Terron Armstead got a lot of playing time and still could have a chance to start.

Wide receiver Preston Parker probably enhanced his chances of making the roster by catching two touchdown passes.

Luke McCown may have solidified his lead over Seneca Wallace in the competition to be the backup quarterback. McCown completed 18 of 28 passes for 216 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wallace, who has been dealing with a groin injury, did not play.
NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Saints may be coming off a losing season, but they still are going to get plenty of national attention. They’ll play four games in prime time, including two at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ schedule is tied for the second-hardest slate in the NFL (a .539 winning percentage by opponents in 2012). But the best news might be that coach Sean Payton will make his official return to the sideline following a one-year suspension in the opener against Atlanta at home. The Saints and Falcons are one of the league’s hottest rivalries (the Saints have won 11 of 14 meetings since 2006) and Payton’s return only adds another storyline. The key to New Orleans’ season might be the four-week stretch from Nov. 10 to Dec. 2. In that span, the Saints will host Dallas and San Francisco and then travel to Atlanta and Seattle.

Complaint department: Saints fans might call it a conspiracy by the NFL and they might be right. But the schedule makers have set up an Oct. 13 game at New England that could be historic. Tom Brady currently has a streak of 48 games with at least one touchdown pass. New Orleans’ Drew Brees set the record (54). As long as Brady can keep the streak going, he’ll have a chance to tie Brees’ record against the Saints. That could give new coordinator Rob Ryan some material to motivate his defense for Brady.

Road warriors: The Saints are used to hitting the road. They’ve had to get out of New Orleans due to weather and Payton often has had his team practice elsewhere in the preseason. That experience might come in handy. The Saints have three separate times when they will have to play back-to-back games on the road. But the bright side is the Saints will play three of their first four games at home and they also will be home with Tampa Bay in the final week of the regular season.

Saints Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Tampa Bay, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, Arizona, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Monday, Sept. 30, Miami, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at New England, 4:25 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 21, at Atlanta, 8:25 p.m.
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 2, at Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, Carolina, 1:00 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

New Orleans' preseason schedule

April, 4, 2013
Coach Sean Payton’s return to the sidelines will come in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. After sitting out last season because of a suspension, Payton and the Saints will open their preseason schedule at home against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The exact time and date of the game have yet to be finalized, but it will be sometime between Aug. 8 and 11. The Saints also will be at home with Oakland in Week 2 (Aug. 15 to 19).

On Aug. 25 at 4 p.m. ET, the Saints will play a nationally televised game (on FOX) at Houston. The Saints will close their preseason at Miami on either Aug. 29 or 30. That will be the first time the Saints have been to Sun Life Stadium since winning Super Bowl XLIV.

Live from New Orleans

January, 28, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- Super Bowl week is upon us and that’s going to put New Orleans in the world’s spotlight.

I have absolutely no doubt New Orleans will pull it off in spectacular fashion. I’ve been to Super Bowls in a bunch of different cities and I’ve always said New Orleans is the perfect venue. Hotels, the French Quarter and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome all are located in close proximity.

But it has been a while since New Orleans hosted a Super Bowl. The last was in 2002. As we all know, Hurricane Katrina came in 2005 and changed the city forever. I’ve been a frequent visitor to New Orleans since I started with ESPN in 2008 and my sense is the city has recovered extremely well, with the Saints playing a huge role in that process.

Some civic leaders say this Super Bowl might be the final step in New Orleans’ recovery.

“My hope is it can help bring some real closure here, and that the city can show what it can do,’’ Super Bowl host committee co-chairperson, and political analyst, James Carville said in a conference call with the national media. “But you just don’t know that feeling until you’re through with it. All of us on the committee are trying not to focus on that. We’re trying to focus on the mission at hand.

“Sometimes I wake up at night and say. “If this thing goes well this can really help people put a lot of things behind ‘em’’. Yes, that thought has crossed my mind. But I can’t allow myself to think like that. We’re a little bit like these teams. You can’t think what it’s like to win, you just have to prepare. That’s been the attitude here.’’

I’m sure New Orleans is as prepared as possible and this is a city that has shown it can adjust to whatever comes its way. The Super Bowl should be a snap for New Orleans.

I’ll be here all week, helping out with our coverage of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens as well as keeping tabs on whatever’s going on in the NFC South. I’ve got a meeting planned with one of the division’s starting quarterbacks later in the week.

And I’ll be watching as New Orleans puts on a show.

Wrap-up: Panthers 44, Saints 38

December, 30, 2012

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers44-38 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday:

What it means: This was a fitting end to the Saints’ season. A defense that set an NFL record for yards allowed in a season was absolutely horrible. That defense is a huge part of the reason the Saints finished at 7-9. The Panthers also finished with a 7-9 record, but they finished on a high note.

Enough to save a job? The Panthers finished the season by winning their final four games and looking like the team many expected them to be back in the preseason. Will that be enough for the Panthers to keep coach Ron Rivera around for a third season? That now is up to owner Jerry Richardson, who hasn’t had a team with a winning season since 2008. Richardson’s patience is wearing thin, but I think patience might be a good thing in this case. Rivera got the Panthers, to finish strong and I don’t think it’s in the best interest of franchise quarterback Cam Newton to have to adjust to a new coaching staff. And let’s remember, Newton is the franchise in Carolina.

End of the misery? The bounty scandal, the Drew Brees contract negotiations and a losing season made for a very difficult nine months for the Saints and their fans. It’s all over now, and coach Sean Payton is expected to be reinstated from his suspension the day after the Super Bowl. Things should get better, but it’s not going to be easy. Payton’s offensive intellect should be enough to touch up the offense a little bit, but the defense has to improve dramatically for the Saints to have any shot at becoming contenders again.

What’s next: For the Panthers, it’s time to watch and wait to see whether Richardson keeps Rivera. A decision should come very quickly, but Richardson also has to hire a general manager. Once those two situations are resolved, the Panthers likely will have to go through the painful process of unloading some veterans because their salary-cap situation is a mess. The Panthers have $136 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. The Saints are in a similar situation when it comes to the cap. They have about $138 million committed toward the cap. Veterans Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Roman Harper are high on a long list of guys with high cap figures that could be salary-cap casualties. If those three go, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are going to have to get very creative in how they go about restocking their defense.

Wrap-up: Saints 34, Cowboys 31 (OT)

December, 23, 2012
Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 34-31 overtime victory against Dallas at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: The Saints improved to 7-8, but they might have done themselves more harm than good in the locker run by hurting Dallas’ playoff hopes. Suspended New Orleans coach Sean Payton remains without a contract for next season and there’s been a ton of speculation that he could end up in Dallas, where he served as an assistant coach and was very close to owner Jerry Jones. If the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs, the chances that Jones will fire coach Jason Garrett increase dramatically. If there’s an opening in Dallas and Payton hasn’t already worked out a new deal with New Orleans, Jones is likely to come after Payton with an open checkbook.

What I liked: The way the Saints came to play even though they began the day with only the slightest chance of backing into the playoffs and that scenario was eliminated as the day went on. This team faced a lot of adversity all season long, but the Saints never used that as an excuse. Drew Brees threw for a season-high 437 yards, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton forced a fumble and recovered it to set up a crucial touchdown and the Saints still pulled out the overtime win after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.

What I didn’t like: A defense that seemed to be improving in recent weeks struggled mightily. The secondary in particular had major problems, especially when it came to attempting to cover Dez Bryant. Cornerback Jabari Greer left the game with a concussion and backup Johnny Patrick had a very rough day. That defense is the reason the Saints aren’t going to the playoffs and a lot of work has to be done on that side of the ball in the offseason.

What’s next: The Saints complete their season next Sunday by hosting the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Wrap-up: Panthers 17, Raiders 6

December, 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 17-6 victory against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: It’s the third straight win for the Panthers and puts them at 6-9. The Panthers even have a chance to finish outside of last place in the NFC South, which seemed like something they had locked up only a few weeks ago. That’s far too little too late after a disastrous start to the season. But spirits have been raised and the Panthers will head to the offseason with some positives to build on, no matter who is coaching the team or serving as its general manager.

Rivera watch: The winning streak helps coach Ron Rivera’s quest to keep his job tremendously. In fact, Rivera might already have done enough to stay employed. Quarterback Cam Newton has played well the second half of the season and owner Jerry Richardson might be hesitant to change coaching staffs because that might hamper Newton’s development.

Don’t get too excited: Yes, it’s very nice that the Carolina defense held Oakland to two field goals. But let’s keep this in perspective. The Panthers were playing the Raiders, who were using Matt Leinart as their quarterback.

On the plus side: One more thing that has to help Rivera’s cause is that his team was able to protect a fourth-quarter lead. That’s something that was a major problem earlier in the season.

What’s next: The Panthers conclude their season next Sunday against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Wrap-up: Saints 41, Buccaneers 0

December, 16, 2012

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 41-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

What it means: The Saints were playing for nothing but pride and the way they went out and dominated says a lot about their character. They improved to 6-8 and they have a chance to finish the season with some positive momentum. The momentum is going in the other direction for the Bucs, who fell to 6-8. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bucs were 6-4 and very much in the playoff race. But they’ve lost four straight and if they keep going like they are, all the progress they seemed to be making early in the season will be wiped out.

Rethinking the future? For most of the season, I’ve been saying the Bucs would be wise to sign quarterback Josh Freeman to a contract extension as soon as possible. Now, I’m starting to think they might be smarter to wait. Freeman threw four interceptions against the Saints and completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the two previous games. I still think Freeman, who is under contract through the end of the 2013 season, can be a franchise quarterback, but the Bucs might want to wait until he shows he can play well consistently.

Next man up: The Saints put safety Malcolm Jenkins on injured reserve Saturday. Isa Abdul-Quddus used the increased playing time to make a positive impression. He picked off a Freeman pass and made five tackles.

Bouncing back: I thought Jabari Greer was the best cornerback in the NFC South the past couple of seasons. But, for a variety of reasons, he didn’t seem to be the same player in the first 13 games. Against the Bucs, Greer stepped up and intercepted two Freeman passes.

What pass rush? The Saints were without injured starting right tackle Zach Strief. They put his backup, Charles Brown, on injured reserve Saturday and had to start former practice-squad player William Robinson. So you would expect that the Bucs should have been able to put some pressure on Drew Brees, right? Wrong. The Bucs recorded one sack and Brees threw for four touchdowns.

What’s next: The Saints play at Dallas next Sunday. If coach Sean Payton doesn’t sign a contract extension with the Saints soon, we’re going to hear a week’s worth of speculation about him possibly landing with the Cowboys. The Bucs host the St. Louis Rams next Sunday.

Falcons trying to clear big hurdle

November, 29, 2012
Mike SmithKim Klement/US PresswireThe Falcons' Mike Smith will certainly be energetic Thursday night against the rival Saints.
Already deep into their third consecutive season of double-digit victories, the Atlanta Falcons might be wise to heed the words of a most unlikely source.

They should look to their biggest rival, perhaps the National Football League’s biggest rival.

They should follow the advice of Sean Payton.

In 2009, Payton and the New Orleans Saints were looking to get over a big hump. The coach repeatedly told his players that if they wanted to get to somewhere they’d never been before (winning the Super Bowl), they had to do things they’d never done before. The Saints listened. They hadn’t played a lot of defense in Payton’s first three seasons, but that unit suddenly started producing turnovers and New Orleans got its Super Bowl championship.

Payton is serving a seasonlong suspension and won’t be with the Saints when they come to the Georgia Dome on Thursday night. But if he hasn’t already, it’s time for Atlanta coach Mike Smith to deliver a similar message to his team.

If the Falcons really want to get to a Super Bowl, or even win in the postseason for the first time in the Smith era, it’s time to start shedding the labels. It’s time for the Falcons to do the things they’ve never done -- or in this case almost never done.

They need to get a victory against the Saints. That might send a signal to the world -- and, in the process, to themselves -- that the Falcons are ready for bigger and better things.

Yeah, beating a team with a 5-6 record usually doesn’t qualify as a big deal. But this situation is different.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/Mel EvansPerhaps a rare win over the Saints will give Matt Ryan a boost for playoff success.
On the tree of doing things they haven’t done in the Smith era, beating the Saints is just a few branches beneath winning a postseason game. Let’s be clear that the Falcons have won against the Saints in the Smith era -- just not very often.

In 2008, the year Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons won a Week 10 game at the Georgia Dome. In Week 3 of the 2010 season, the Falcons went to New Orleans and won in overtime.

Other than that, Smith and Ryan have been picked on by the Saints. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Falcons are 2-7 against the Saints, which includes a game a few weeks ago in New Orleans where Atlanta was knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten.

If you want to go back even before Smith and Ryan came along, the Saints have won 11 of their past 13 meetings with the Falcons.

No wonder New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle referred to the Falcons as the Saints’ little brother after New Orleans won the most recent meeting -- a game in which Shanle wasn’t even on the game-day active list.

No wonder New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was part of Smith’s first draft class and the leader of Atlanta’s defense the past four seasons, spoke out in the postgame locker room after his first meeting with his former team and said "rivalry" isn’t an accurate term to describe the relationship between the Saints and Falcons. Lofton sloughed it off as just another division game, pointing to the fact the Saints have dominated the series in recent years.

But sometimes the little brother grows up, becomes bigger than the older brother and starts dunking in the driveway basketball games or winning the wrestling matches. Sometimes the little brother grows bigger but, out of habit, continues to play second fiddle.

You can make a case that the second scenario applies to the last time the Falcons and Saints got together. The Falcons were a yard away from winning in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome but couldn’t punch in a late touchdown against the league’s worst defense.

Until the Falcons stand up and beat the Saints, it’s fair game to wonder if the Saints are in the Falcons' heads.

“We’re just going to go out there Thursday night and let our play do all the talking, and we’re just going to go out there and play hard," said Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who played on playoff teams in New England and Philadelphia.

The Falcons like to say this season's team is different than Smith’s previous teams. At times, it has looked like new coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan have brought different attitudes to both sides of the ball and Samuel has brought a swagger that seemed to be missing in the past. At other times, usually when the Falcons have won close games against bad teams, they look like the same old team that has lost three playoff games under Smith.

If the Falcons are going to win in the postseason this time around, a win against the Saints would be a step on the ladder. Beating the Saints has been a slippery step in the past, but if the Falcons finally put that rung behind them, the next steps could get easier.

Wrap-up: 49ers 31, Saints 21

November, 25, 2012

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.

What it means: The Saints fall to 5-6. You can’t erase them from the playoff picture just yet, but it’s getting dangerously close to that point. With a schedule that looks challenging the next few weeks, the Saints have almost no margin for error. They almost have to run the table if they’re going to have any shot at the playoffs. A 10-6 record probably would put them into the postseason. A 9-7 record would give them an outside chance. Anything less than that won’t be good enough.

Not all on the defense: It would be easy to look at San Francisco’s point total and put all the blame on the New Orleans defense. That’s been the case much of this season. But not this time. Two of San Francisco’s touchdowns came on interceptions off Drew Brees that were turned into touchdowns.

Injuries pile up: Due to injuries to Zach Strief and Charles Brown, the Saints were forced to start rookie Bryce Harris at right tackle. That didn’t last long as Harris was injured and carted off the field in the first quarter. The Saints had to turn to recently-signed William Robinson. That’s not a situation you want to be in against a strong San Francisco pass rush and Brees had to deal with pressure all game and was sacked five times.

Milestone time: Marques Colston became the franchise leader in touchdowns scored when he caught a second-quarter touchdown pass. Colston now has 56 career touchdowns. Deuce McAllister held the previous team record with 55 touchdowns.

What’s next: The Saints face a very quick turnaround. They have to play the Falcons on Thursday night in Atlanta.

Saints bring Falcons back to earth

November, 11, 2012
Jimmy GrahamDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireJimmy Graham scored two touchdowns and had seven receptions for 146 yards against the Falcons.
NEW ORLEANS -- If you thought the New Orleans Saints' 31-27 victory against the Atlanta Falcons was entertaining, wait until you hear what came out of the locker rooms at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after Sunday’s game.

New Orleans won the first four quarters (barely) and handed the Falcons their first loss of the season.

Or did Atlanta hand the Falcons their first loss of the season? As often is the case in the NFC South’s best rivalry, this one at least went into verbal overtime.

“It’s not like they came out here and just won the game,’’ said Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White, who has been known to take shots at the Saints and the city of New Orleans through the years. “I kind of think we gave it away. We gave it to them. It was really nothing they did. It was everything we did and not cashing in on opportunities.’’

Wait, did White really say the Falcons gave it away?

“Basically, yeah,’’ White said.

A few minutes after that, New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton stood at a podium in another corner of the building and delivered his most vicious shot on a day when he recorded five tackles. Keep in mind, Lofton played the first four years of his career with the Falcons before signing with the Saints in the offseason after being told he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker in Atlanta.

And keep in mind the question that prompted this: Do the Saints, who have won 11 of the past 13 meetings, consider the Falcons a rival? Lofton followed with an answer that I think he’s been rehearsing since March.

“A rivalry?" Lofton said. "I wouldn’t say so because the Saints always [are] out on top of that. It’s not even. It’s a divisional game and that brings extra attitude to it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry."

Maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s a divisive game when the Saints and Falcons get together. These two teams don’t like each other, and the words of Lofton and White just symbolize the emotions that were flying after the game.

In fact, you could say both White and Lofton made very valid points in the heat of the moment.

Let’s start with White. You could say he’s right in his assessment that the Falcons -- who came in with an 8-0 record -- gave the game away. All season long -- and even in recent seasons -- we’ve heard tons about how you can never count the Falcons out if quarterback Matt Ryan has the ball in his hands near the end of the game.

The Falcons stumbled all over that concept -- twice in the final minutes. Ryan drove the Falcons to the New Orleans 1-yard line just before the two-minute warning. When you’re 1 yard and two minutes away from being 9-0 and you’re going against a defense that came into the game on pace to be the worst in the history of the NFL, victory should be automatic.

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireNew Orleans stopped Michael Turner all day -- including a critical third and goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t. Ryan had put the Falcons at the 1-yard line with a first-down pass to Harry Douglas. An incompletion followed that, and then perhaps the ugliest play of the day came next. Michael Turner, who once appeared able to run through any defense, looked slower than he has all season. Put some blame on the Atlanta offensive line as well. Either way, Turner lost a yard, and Ryan’s fourth-down pass went incomplete.

“Whether it’s 1 yard or 10, when you don’t win, it’s frustrating,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

Even after the goal-line fiasco, the Falcons had another chance to win. Ryan and the offense got the ball back at their own 31-yard line with 37 seconds left. There were no miracles this time, just a 9-yard pass followed by three incompletions.

That’s why Lofton’s shots at his former teammates might have been spot-on. Atlanta fans and some players had been talking a lot about how the Falcons deserved more national attention and respect. There even had been some talk about the Falcons having a chance to go through the season undefeated.

All that turned out to be just talk, and it was way too premature. The Saints (4-5) showed they still have some life left in their season. Their running game (148 yards on the ground) was excellent, and their defense came through when it mattered most.

But the biggest story out of Sunday might have been that maybe the Falcons are what their critics said: overrated.

Atlanta’s defense looked like it was the one with a chance to be the worst in history. The running game (46 net yards) was pathetic.

All the talk about the Falcons being a different team this year now seems questionable. How are they going to finally win a playoff game when they can’t even beat a division rival that’s having a down year?

"That’s one team you don’t want to have your first loss to," Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud said.

A moment before, as reporters stood a few feet away, DeCoud was talking to a few other defensive backs.

“The bandwagon is over," said DeCoud, who then mumbled something about how the crowd at the Georgia Dome next Sunday probably will be filled with fans of the Arizona Cardinals.

Yeah, this loss was devastating because it came against the Saints. But as DeCoud cooled off a few minutes later, his logic made more sense.

Sunday marked the end of Atlanta’s winning streak, not the end of the world.

“It’s a distraction out of the way," DeCoud said.

The Falcons still are well on their way to winning the NFC South and on pace to hold home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. They need to treat the loss for what it was: one loss. But they need to take a look at all the flaws that were exposed in that loss and fix them.

“It’s a wake-up call," DeCoud said. “A nice little sock in the chin to bring us back to earth.’’

Now that they’ve been humbled, maybe the Falcons can fix the cracks that were apparent even when they were winning. If they do that in the most important stretch of the season and into the playoffs, they’ll finally get the attention and respect they crave, and there won't be talk about them being overrated.

If not, they’ll just be the same old Falcons.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 31, Falcons 27

November, 11, 2012

NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 31-27 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

What it means: The Falcons are no longer undefeated. They are 8-1 and had some flaws exposed. They also still might have some sort of mental block about the Saints, who have won 11 of the teams' past 13 meetings. It's only one loss, but this should give the Falcons a dose of reality -- they're good, but they have some work to do if they seriously hope to get to the Super Bowl. The Saints are 4-5, and this game showed they still can play with anyone on any given day. It's still not going to be easy for the Saints to make the playoffs, but winning beats the alternative. If they had lost, just about any playoff hope would have been gone.

What I liked about the Saints: They ran the ball exceptionally well with Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory taking turns. The Saints also came up with some defensive stops early on. More importantly, they got the big stop when it mattered most. The New Orleans defense stopped the Falcons on their final two drives.

What I liked about the Falcons: That they were able to rally back after trailing by 11 and make it a very tight game. But that still wasn't good enough.

What I didn’t like about the Falcons: The defense, particularly the run defense, was dismal most of the day. I know the Falcons were without injured linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, but he’s not their whole run defense. I also thought Atlanta’s running game was horrible. A week after Michael Turner rushed for 100 yards, he was limited to 15 yards on 13 carries by what had been one of the worst statistical defenses in history. Turner also lost a yard on a carry from the New Orleans 1-yard line late in the game. I know Turner has lost a step, but he still has enough power to gain a yard. I'm thinking the fact he couldn't is as much of an indictment of the Atlanta offensive line as it is of Turner.

What’s next: The Falcons host the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday. The Saints play at Oakland next Sunday.

Halftime thoughts on Falcons-Saints

November, 11, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- We’ve got a typical Falcons-Saints game going on at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It’s shaping up to be a classic shootout between Matt Ryan and Drew Brees and there hasn’t been much defense out of either team.

At halftime, the Saints have a 21-17 lead. Brees hit Jimmy Graham with a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left in the half to give the Saints the lead. The Saints have the momentum right now, but I've got a hunch we could see multiple momentum (and lead) changes in the second half because neither defense appears capable of stopping much of anything.

Also, an important note from the first half. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones left the game after catching a short pass late in the first quarter. The Falcons said Jones has a leg injury and his return is questionable.

I’ll be back with Rapid Reaction soon after the game ends and will have a full column on the biggest topic of the game after that.