ATLANTA — Stole it, they did.
Somewhere between last season and this, the New Orleans Saints stole the mojo, the moxie, the patented formula for making the crucial little plays the Atlanta Falcons made last season when New Orleans was languishing and Atlanta was steaming to an NFC-best 13-3 record.
A season and a team are defined by those little plays, which stick and stack together until you have a critical mass, a coral reef, a winning season or a losing one.
All of a sudden, you have a Saints team that is 9-2 and a Falcons team that is 2-9, one that is reaching for the all-important NFC home-field advantage and the other that is in a death spiral down toward Jadeveon Clowney draft territory.
They played in New Orleans to start the season. They played here Thursday night. The Saints won both games, games that could have gone either way, by a combined 10 points.
What’s the difference? Debilitating injuries? The Falcons have had their share, but so have the Saints, with defenders like Will Smith and Jon Vilma and Jabari Greer (more on him later) never or barely seeing the field or falling at a difficult time.
The difference is making the play. The first-down run. The scoring pass. The third-down tackle. The turnover-forcing strip.
“We did a good job executing,” Saints running back Pierre Thomas said. “A few mistakes, but we came out victorious.”
A hard-won 17-13 victory over the hated archrival Falcons was made sweeter for the fact the Saints now get to rest and regroup and hone in for one of the weightiest games on the entire NFL calendar: Dec. 2 at 10-1 Seattle.
So how did the Saints put themselves in this position? How did they win three easily losable against the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Falcons in a span of 12 dramatic days?
Winning play after winning play. Execution. The same way the Falcons got to 13-3 last season, a season marked by many late-game dramatics.
“This is the time of year when you have to be your best and you have to find a way,” Drew Brees said.
New Orleans won round one with Atlanta back on Sept. 8 on a pass tipped away in the end zone to escape 23-17 as the clock hit zero.
How did the Saints get in front for the first time Thursday? On a 44-yard Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham touchdown pass in which safety William Moore got torched, the kind of play that Atlanta coach Mike Smith lamented has haunted his team all season.
Oh yes, then Graham broke the west end zone goal posts. OK, he didn’t break them exactly, but he knocked them askew with a two-handed “dunk.”
The pass and the Saints couldn’t break the proud, spiteful Falcons. They broke themselves.
Exhibit A: Matt Ryan had Darius Johnson in the left flat in the third quarter, so wide open that LSU announcer Jim Hawthorne was no doubt back home yelling, “He’s so wide open!” In a Georgia Dome suite somewhere, Samuel L. Jackson (who belts out the team’s “Rise Up” mantra in a pregame video) was probably ready to yell, too, but that’s what he does.
But Ryan’s pass was a bit behind and off Johnson’s trailing left shoulder, and he couldn’t grasp what would have been a sure first-down gain on third-and-2. It was such a 2-9 kind of moment for the Falcons; they punted back to the Saints, who promptly marched for a 41-yard Garrett Hartley field goal to create what counts for separation in this always tense series with that 17-13 lead.
With the Saints still clinging to that shaky four-point lead and the Falcons driving again early in the fourth, New Orleans got a game-saving break. Ryan completed a pass to Johnson in the left flat this time, but Saints linebacker Keyunta Dawson wrenched the ball away and cornerback Corey White fell on the prize at the New Orleans 13.
It was a moment of sweet redemption for White, who replaced Greer after he was lost for the season with an injury Sunday against San Francisco. The Falcons, as you would expect, painted a big target on White’s back and put throwing passes in his direction at the top of their Christmas list.
“We didn’t get it done,” Ryan said simply. White did, at a very big time.
The turnover kept the Falcons at bay just enough, just like in the first week of the season. A season in which block by block the Saints have built themselves into one of the NFL’s biggest winners, and the Falcons, like their soon-to-be-replaced Georgia Dome, find themselves condemned property.