ATLANTA — Across the line, New Orleans defensive lineman Will Smith was talking trash to Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant. He had his reasons.
If the Saints were to have any realistic chance to win a fifth straight game against the Falcons on Thursday night inside the Georgia Dome, they would need Bryant to miss this 55-yard field goal with 4:25 to play.
So Smith barked. But Bryant didn’t bite. Instead he kicked it true. Atlanta led 23-13, which soon became the final score.
“A big play,” Falcons coach Mike Smith would say later. “But I had all the confidence in the world in Matt Bryant at that moment. He’s made those kicks for us so many times.”
This is how you win 11 of your first 12 games, as the Falcons now have. This is how you all but lock up the home field for the playoffs, which would seem a must if Atlanta is to entertain any hope of getting past the defending world champion New York Giants or the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason.
This is not to yet say the Falcons are a great team. They are, however, great at winning by any means necessary, as witness their four wins to date by four points or less.
With only four games to play — home contests against the Giants (Dec. 16) and Tampa Bay (Dec. 30), road games at Carolina and Detroit — Atlanta seems all but a certainty to play its NFC playoff games inside the Dome.
Moreover, despite their numerous close calls, the Falcons seem to be getting better across the board. They intercepted New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times and held the All-Pro without a touchdown pass for the first time in 54 games.
“Every week you see a different phase of our team getting better,” said Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. “They ran the ball pretty well on us down there. We adjusted this time.”
Outside, throughout the parking lots that surround the Georgia Dome, it was somewhat difficult to know who was playing inside the grand structure on Thursday night — the Falcons or the Georgia Bulldogs.
Both teams wear red and black, after all. Both call Georgia home and both had huge games slated for the Dome this weekend. So despite a preponderance of Falcons jerseys on hand before the Saints game, there were also a large number of UGA spirit flags and signs to be seen.
But inside the Dome it was all Falcons and all business, the Atlanta faithful having come to see their team avenge its only loss of the season.
On paper, this goal should have been easy. Atlanta entered this one with a 10-1 record, best in the NFC. Its defense was surrendering 110 yards less than the Saints. Its offense was a little more than a point shy of the pinball Saints.
Given such statistics, it certainly seemed likely that the Falcons would pay back New Orleans for their 31-27 loss in the Superdome on Nov. 11.
The Falcons fans apparently were so confident of victory that they reportedly egged the Saints bus on its way in from the airport Wednesday night.
And so it began, the NFL’s unofficial Egg Bowl, the Falcons no doubt hoping their fans’ overzealous actions didn’t leave the home team with egg on its face.
Especially since Coach Smith entered this one with a 2-7 record against New Orleans, having lost four straight to the Bountygate bunch.
How focused is this Falcons team on winning this year?
When Michael Turner scored the first touchdown of the night to wrest the Atlanta’s “most career touchdowns” record from Terance Mathis (58 to 57), the ball remained in the end zone for the longest time, Turner either unconcerned or uninformed about his historic score.
Either way, it’s yet another example that the Falcons are worried far more about winning their way back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1998 Dirty Birds than about individual achievements.
But there’s also something about the way they beat these Saints, with defense more than offense, with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan less than perfect.
“Streak or no streak,” defensive back Dunta Robinson said, “this was a big, big win.”
Just call it an egg-cellent win for the home team. Now the Big Peach will have to wait to see if the red and black magic that filled the Georgia Dome on Thursday can return Saturday against Alabama.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...