The crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday had seen this same movie less than a year ago.
Late in the fourth quarter and trailing by less than a touchdown, the Atlanta Falcons were down to their last play as they drove toward the Poydras Street end zone, not even 10 feet away from scoring on their NFC South rivals, the New Orleans Saints.
In Week 10 of the 2012 season, with 1:42 left, Saints cornerback Jabari Greer broke up a pass Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan intended for receiver Roddy White on fourth-and-goal from the 2 as New Orleans won 31-27.
On Sunday with 49 seconds left, Ryan again attempted a fourth-and-goal strike, aiming at tight end Tony Gonzalez from the 3. This time, Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints’ rookie safety, cut in and tipped the ball into the air.
Fellow safety Roman Harper hauled in the loose ball and fell to the ground for a touchback and a 23-17 victory. Teammates piled onto Harper, who had recovered a fumble earlier in the game, and more than 70,000 voices in the Superdome erupted.
Harper’s late heroics ensured the Saints had beaten the Falcons for the 12th time in the 15 games they have played since coach Sean Payton took charge in 2006.
“It’s crazy, but when you have two great teams, that’s the way it’s going to go,” Harper said of the teams’ latest thrilling finish. “(It was) a heavyweight fight — I’m just glad we (landed) the most punches.”
Payton’s first regular-season game back after his yearlong suspension shouldn’t have surprised anyone. All week, players and coaches pointed out that the final possession decided seven of the past 10 meetings between the teams. Now, it’s eight of 11, though initially it seemed the Falcons might rout the Saints.
After a Saints punt and a turnover on downs, Atlanta took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter on a 7-yard touchdown throw from Ryan to Gonzalez, followed by a 23-yard field goal from Matt Bryant.
New Orleans’ first score came on a 48-yard field goal from Garrett Hartley with 10:53 left in the second quarter. But on the next Falcons drive, the Saints showed that another classic in the rivalry was in the making.
On first-and-10 from his team’s 20, Ryan connected with receiver Julio Jones for a 22-yard gain, but safety Malcolm Jenkins punched the ball out of Jones’ hands. Harper recovered the fumble at midfield and returned it 19 yards. Three plays later, Drew Brees lofted a 25-yard touchdown pass up the middle to receiver Marques Colston, and the score was tied after the extra point.
Sacked twice, Brees finished 26-of-35 for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception to cornerback Robert Alford, a rookie out of Southeastern Louisiana. Colston’s score was the 533rd grab of his career, breaking the team’s receptions mark held by Eric Martin.
Afterward, Colston said his historic catch would’ve meant nothing to him had the Saints lost.
The Saints got the rest of their points off a 7-yard touchdown reception by tight end Jimmy Graham and field goals of 31 and 22 yards from Hartley. Atlanta, which surrendered three sacks to New Orleans’ opportunistic defense — answered with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Jones before the Falcons started their final drive at the 20 with 3:12 left.
Ryan (25-of-38 for 304 passing yards and two touchdowns) moved the Falcons 77 yards by completing passes to Jones, Gonzalez (twice), White, running back Steven Jackson and receiver Harry Douglas. He missed on three passes, the last of which Vaccaro tipped and Harper snagged.
“We knew Tony was going to get the ball because he likes to box out and jump up,” Vaccaro said. “Basically, Roman did a good job pressing him. I turned in and just tipped the ball up.”
Harper, in his eighth year with the Saints, said he was thankful he pulled through for the Saints in the presence of former teammate Steve Gleason, who was honored before kickoff for his fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — and for his punt block against the Falcons the night the Superdome reopened in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina.
“Knowing (seven) years ago Steve was the man of the hour,” Harper said, “I’m truly blessed to be the man of the hour today.”
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