In a span of 51 weeks, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons have experienced the kind of role reversal that’s become a common occurrence in the NFC South standings over the years.
When they met Nov. 29, on a Thursday night in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons were well on their way to the division title and clinching the No. 1 seed in the conference, while the Saints were heading toward a 7-9 finish.
When they get together again on Thursday night in the same venue, the disparity between the two teams will seem as wide as it was at this same time last season — only it’s the other way around.
The Saints are 8-2, and even though they lead the division by just one game over the Carolina Panthers, they’re six games clear of the 2-8 Falcons — the team they defeated 23-17 in the season opener on Sept. 8 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I don’t know if it’s role reversal, but it’s a very good question,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said Tuesday on a conference call. “Obviously, (the Saints) season has gone very well.
“They’re playing efficient football across the board and, at this point in time, we are not. We’re not playing the type of football that we know that we are capable of playing.”
The Falcons, who many thought would be bona fide Super Bowl contenders after they came within 10 yards of reaching last year’s title game, have fallen on hard times.
Since leaving the Superdome with a loss when a last-minute drive for what could have been a game-winning touchdown came up short, the Falcons have had three- and four-game losing streaks after Smith had never lost more than two games in a row since taking over in 2008.
Now, the team the Saints thought they’d be battling for the division title — they’ve each won the NFC South twice over the past four years — is trying to salvage whatever it can in the final six games of the season.
Smith attributed losing some early games by close margins, which they didn’t do a year ago, as one of the reasons for their struggles this season. Their first four losses were by a total of 19 points.
But he’s concerned about what has happened during their current four-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored by 74 points — which included crushing back-to-back losses of 24 and 23 points.
“We’ve not played very good football in the last four weeks,” Smith said. “We’ve done numerous things across the board that have stopped us from playing well. We have not been very good in the turnover ratio. We are not creating turnovers. We are not protecting the football. We have not been good on third down on defense.
“When you don’t win situationaly, it is hard to win and we’ve done it across the board — offensively, defensively and special teams.”
One of the biggest disappointments for Smith is the turnover differential. A year ago, the Falcons tied for fifth in the league at plus-13; this year, they’re tied for 29th at minus-11.
Smith said he’s tried to be as transparent as he can with his team.
“We’ve not coached our best … we haven’t played our best and when you don’t do that in the NFL, you’re not going to play well,” he said. “The last four games haven’t been good and the turnover ratio’s been horrendous.”
The toughest part is knowing it started wrong against the Saints and followed it with three more close losses before it went south recently.
“We’ve found ways to win close games (last year) and this year has been the total opposite,” said wide receiver Roddy White. “We’ve actually tried to find ways to lose games.
“It’s been frustrating up to this point in the season. We’re just trying to finish strong, trying to find a way to win games and just move forward every week.”