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Sunday, December 13, 2009
Saints have finishing touch

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Among the several inspirational bands that New Orleans free safety Darren Sharper wears prominently on his right wrist is a thin, black band of elastic that reads simply: "Finish strong!"

It is a motto the Saints have preached since the end of the 2008 season, a campaign in which New Orleans often wilted in the fourth quarter and lost five games by three points or fewer. It is a motto the 2009 Saints take seriously, one that has served them well in this undefeated season (13-0), and a credo that was hardly ignored in Sunday's 26-23 victory over the surprisingly scrappy Atlanta Falcons.

"We take pride in the [motto]," Sharper said after a fourth quarter in which the Saints had an interception and then a stop on a fourth-and-2 play with 1:12 remaining. "We live it."

The victory secured a first-round playoff bye for the Saints and moved them one game closer to clinching home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Atlanta, which played without quarterback Matt Ryan and tailback Michael Turner for a second straight week, has lost four of five, and at 6-7 is teetering on the brink of playoff elimination.

The Falcons must win their final three games -- at the New York Jets (Dec. 20), against the Buffalo Bills (Dec. 27) and at Tampa Bay (Jan. 3) -- to keep from extending one of the most ignominious records in NFL history. Since the Falcons began play in 1966, they have never posted consecutive winning seasons.

Vilma
Jonathan Vilma made two huge plays to help the Saints turn back Atlanta and improve to 13-0.

Perhaps no one on the New Orleans roster takes the "Finish strong!" rallying point more to heart than middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The six-year veteran registered a last-minute interception last week at Washington to preserve a tie and send the contest to overtime. On Sunday, he intercepted Atlanta quarterback Chris Redman with 3:33 to play, then stopped tailback Jason Snelling 1 yard shy of a first down on a fourth-and-2 pass with 1:12 left and the Falcons driving toward a potential game-tying field goal.

Said defensive end Will Smith: "When the game is on the line, [Vilma] comes through. I guess he's like our 'closer.' But we all go into the fourth quarter knowing that we have to make a play … and we usually do. It's something on which we thrive. We've become pretty confident that someone will step up and do something."

That the Saints have thoroughly dominated opponents in the fourth quarter is evident in their numbers for the final period. New Orleans has outscored opponents 125-34 in the fourth quarter.

"The first three quarters is like just setting the table for us," defensive end Charles Grant said. "We know what winning the fourth quarter means. We've kind of developed an attitude about it, that we won't be denied."

Most remarkable is that New Orleans has won the time-of-possession battle in the fourth quarter in nine of its 13 games. On Sunday afternoon, it held a huge edge over the Falcons (11:12-3:48) in the fourth quarter. For the season, the Saints have averaged 9:13 of possession time in the fourth quarter.

"We're strong finishers," general manager Mickey Loomis said. "And that wasn't always the case for this franchise."

Frequently overlooked, probably because of the brilliance of quarterback Drew Brees and his fleet of receivers, is New Orleans' ability to run the ball physically. This is more than just a finesse team, and while the Saints managed only 95 rushing yards on 26 attempts Sunday, they controlled the tempo with the run and set up several play-action and screen passes because of the threat of pounding the ball inside.

The result of the mix is a very balanced, varied offensive design.

"We know that if we have to run the ball, we can," said tailback Reggie Bush, who had 33 yards on six carries and provided all sorts of matchup problems for Atlanta linebackers, catching six passes for 46 yards and two touchdowns. "When it gets down to [crunch time], we'll do whatever we have to do to win."

The game was close because of a strong effort by Redman (23-of-34 for 303 yards) and some timely defensive stands. Redman actually threw for more yards than Brees (296), and the Falcons outgained the Saints (392-391). After allowing New Orleans to score on each of its first four possessions, the Atlanta defense played relatively well.

Because of injuries, particularly at cornerback, Atlanta started its seventh different secondary combination. The defensive backfield, which has now employed six different starting cornerbacks, had a difficult time handling the Saints' wideouts in some stretches but still limited New Orleans to a modest 9.5 yards per catch.

But after trimming an early-third-quarter deficit from 23-9 to 26-23 and limiting the Saints to their second-lowest scoring output of the season, the Falcons couldn't get over the hump. Trailing by only three points with nearly five minutes to play and the ball at their own 36-yard line, the Falcons for some reason went to a Wildcat offense with tailback Jerious Norwood taking the direct snap. Norwood handed to Eric Weems on an end-around, and cornerback Randall Gay nailed the receiver for a 12-yard loss.

On the next play, a second-and-22 snap, Vilma stepped in front of Roddy White for an interception.

"Look, everybody brings their A-game against us because of who we are and what we have done so far," Grant said. "But I've been here eight years now, and this team just has attitude about it. We're not going to fold, especially in the fourth quarter. We're going to finish what we started. We're going to finish strong."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.