Official team photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Atlanta Falcons game on Sunday, December 21, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)
The beaming promise Sunday morning of the New Orleans Saints possibly winning the NFC South Division title faded into a dark reality by the afternoon, with the Saints being eliminated from playoff contention.
Atlanta's 30-14 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome scuttled the Saints' chances of reaching the postseason and handed New Orleans (6-9) its fifth consecutive home loss in the 2014 home finale.
The Saints, who lost five straight regular-season home games for the first time since the 1980 season, will close out the regular season next Sunday in Tampa, Fla., against the Buccaneers (2-13).
"It's frustrating, absolutely," Coach Sean Payton said. "Losing is frustrating, absolutely. To sit here after a tough game like that, it's disappointing. For our players, our fans. It's tough.
"There is kind of an – I don't want to say expectation, but there is a standard and this is something that we haven't been up to this year. That term 'puzzling' and 'head scratching' – look, in our sport you go look at the film and you watch it and study it and say, 'Hey, this did happen, this didn't happen.' (Puzzling and head scratching) are not terms I would use to describe it. Inconsistent? Yes, quite a bit."
Part of the inconsistency involved turnovers – committing them, and failing to force them. And that unevenness again arose Sunday, with the Saints committing four turnovers and failing to force any. One turnover came at Atlanta's goal line with the Saints driving for a score and another, in the shadow of the Saints' goal line, which lead to a Falcons' field goal.
"You play this game, if you're professional and if you're here for the right reasons, for a lot of folks," right tackle Zach Strief said. "You play for your family. You play it for the people that brought you here that believed in you. You play for your teammates. You play for the fans that support you.
"So you feel like you everybody down, everyone around you. You walk out of this stadium, every person you see, you feel like you let that guy down that day. And that's tough. We deserve it. We got exactly what we deserve. But it's disappointing and it's tough."
The Saints entered Sunday with control of the division race. Victories in the last two games would have assured New Orleans of the NFC South crown and of hosting a wild-card playoff game, regardless of what Carolina did or didn't accomplish (the Panthers, 6-8-1, beat Cleveland and will play the Falcons on Sunday in a winner-take-all game for the division title).
But the Saints couldn't ride the momentum of a 99-yard return by Jalen Saunders on the opening kickoff, and were unable to win consecutive games for the second time this season.
Saunders' return led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram on the game's first play from scrimmage. The Saints were outscored 30-7 from there, with Atlanta's final score coming via Osi Umenyiora's 86-yard return of Drew Brees' fumble as time expired.
"I'm more just disappointed in the outcome of the game," Brees said. "I'm feeling like despite the way we played offensively in the first half, our defense battled and put us in a position to win that game in the end. We're down six points with two (minutes) and change and we were not able to win the game. That was disappointing."
The Saints believed they had pulled to within six points earlier in the game, on the first play of the fourth quarter.
On first-and-10 from Atlanta's 14-yard line, Brees completed a pass to tight end Jimmy Graham down the middle. As Graham surged toward the goal line the ball was stripped loose by Atlanta safety Kemal Ishmael, who recovered it at the 2 and returned it 18 yards, to the 20.
The play was reviewed and upheld.
"It's something you can't control," Payton said. "(The coaching staff had) the same look that they had. Do I think it was a score? Yes."
In a pool report, referee John Parry said that likely, whatever the ruling was on the field, was the one that would have stood in that situation.
"We primarily focused on the angle that was – I wouldn't say exactly – but was pretty close to being down on the goal line to try to determine if it was either a score and/or a catch-fumble recovered by Atlanta," Parry said.
"There was nothing clear and undisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field. If we would have ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score. If we ruled catch-fumble, recovered Atlanta, nothing enough to change it."
The Saints forced a punt after the ruling, then drove 87 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown, with Brees' 4-yard pass to Graham pulling them to within 20-14 with 5:48 left. And the Saints' defense forced another punt to end Atlanta's next drive.
But with 2:40 left, and after an incompletion on first down, Brees threw his second interception on second-and-10 from the Saints' 10. Cornerback Robert McClain returned it five yards to the Saints' 13 and four plays later, Matt Bryant kicked a 32-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 23-14 lead with 1:56 left.
New Orleans drove from its 20 to Atlanta's 8 on its final drive where, on third-and-6, Brees was sacked for the fifth time. He fumbled and Umenyiora's scoop –and-score ended the game.
"Defensively, we played real well," Payton said. "We did a good job against that offense. Offensively, we weren't good enough.
"We didn't do a good enough job in certain areas, especially when it came to protection, getting the ball out, finding a chance to make some of those plays. Defensively, there were some things that were what we wanted to do."
But what the Saints didn't want to do was squander their opportunity to keep alive their playoff hopes.
"It sucks," outside linebacker Junior Galette said. "We lost. Terrible year.
"We've got to find a way to learn from this. It's one of the worst feelings in the world."
Said linebacker David Hawthorne: "It hurts. You come out and you put all the work into it and when you don't get the results you want, it stings. This is our life, this is our job, this is our profession. Everything we've got is poured into it. This game has given us everything we have so when we don't succeed at it, it hurts."
However, the vow was that elimination will not lead to relaxation.
"When you're 6-9, everybody's job is on the line," Strief said. "That's the reality of the business, so there's plenty to play for (against Tampa Bay). It's not just pride, you're playing for not just yourself. You're playing for your family, you're playing for your teammates, you're playing for the people here who had faith in you and you're playing for your fans."