Atlanta – The New Orleans Saints weren't playing for much of anything Sunday in the Georgia Dome.
Unless you factor in pride.
Roll that together and New Orleans played like it had plenty to play for, and posted a 20-17 victory over Atlanta on a game-winning field goal as time expired. Kai Forbath's 30-yarder gave New Orleans a two-game winning streak to end the season, a season sweep over its NFC South Division rival and the avoidance of its first 10-loss season under Coach Sean Payton.
The Saints (7-9) won three of their final four games, two on the road, to enter the offseason on a high note after a disappointing season.
"We tried to say during the week there was plenty to play for," said right tackle Zach Strief, one of four Saints (along with guard Jahri Evans, quarterback Drew Brees and Marques Colston) on the roster since Payton's first season in 2006.
"If you were in (the locker room) immediately after we came in, you would've seen there was obviously something there to play for. There's a lot of pride in here, there's a lot of guys that care a lot, it means a lot for them and it should and it needs to.
"I think this team just continued to get closer and when you bond as a team, when a locker room comes together, they all matter. You're playing for each other and really, who else are you really playing for at this point in the season, but the guy next to you? I think this locker room has grown tighter and tighter and it was important to a lot of guys to leave with a win and get to the offseason on a high note in an otherwise down note season."
Said Evans: "It feels real good. Any time you can beat Atlanta two times in a year – it's always a one-possession game with these guys. Guys fought hard. We wanted to finish, we wanted to finish for each other and we did that.
"For guys that are up in years or whatever, their decision may be in the offseason, you play for those guys, for guys that may not be coming back or things of that nature. For us, we play to win the game. If we're healthy, we're going to play, especially against divisional teams."
The Saints scratched out a win against the Falcons (8-8) by holding Atlanta scoreless in the second half while posting two field goals by Forbath, including the game-winner.
The critical play, which put the Saints in position for the winning kick, was safety Jamarca Sanford's interception of Matt Ryan's pass with 1:42 left, his three-yard return giving the Saints possession at Atlanta's 25-yard line.
Five plays later - three Tim Hightower runs for 17 yards and two Brees kneel-downs for minus-4 - Forbath kicked his second game-winner of the season, the first being a 50-yarder against the Giants as time expired in a 52-49 victory.
Sanford's only interception this season – his first since a two-interception game for Minnesota on Oct. 9, 2011, which were his only career interceptions until Sunday – followed an exchange of punts and fumble recoveries by the two teams.
Saints defensive tackle John Jenkins recovered Devonta Freeman's fumble at the Saints' 4-yard line with 14:14 left, Falcons cornerback Robert Alford recovered Travaris Cadet's fumble at the Falcons' 1-yard line with 6:04 left, and each team forced the other to punt before Atlanta took possession at its 24-yard line with 1:47 left.
On first down Sanford jumped a route intended for Freeman and gave the ball back to his offense with 1:42 left.
"Before two-minute (warning) came, Coach Crime (secondary coach Wesley McGriff) took out the two-minute plays that they like to run, and I picked up on the angle route with the tailback," Sanford said. "When I got the formation, they tried to put three-by-one and they motioned the tight end over to two-by-two.
"Two-by-two spread, I knew (Freeman) runs the angle route. It was a great job. Coaches put me in position and I just caught the ball and made the play. I knew it was coming the whole time. He ran the angle and I jumped it and the ball was there."
The play and victory didn't lift the Saints into the playoffs – they missed the postseason for the second consecutive season – but it visibly and audibly lifted the spirits of a team that lost four games this season by eight points or less.
"I thought both teams played hard," Payton said. "Defensively, it became one of those games where holding either offense to a field goal (was critical). The thing I'm proud about is we had a ton of injuries, and we didn't use it as an excuse.
"We were nicked up at the offensive tackle position, we were nicked up at corner, some guys played in positions they hadn't played in their entire career. We found a way to hang in there. Defensively, we made the play at the right time. Good way to finish the season."
New Orleans played the entire game without left tackle Terron Armstead, who'd battled through a knee injury in order to play for the last two months, and also minus his backup, first-round pick Andrus Peat.
Stepping in and starting was Senio Kelemete, who mainly has played guard and center for the Saints, and hadn't played extensively at left tackle since starting the final 26 games of his college career at Washington at that position in 2010-11.
"Senio was tremendous," said Brees, who completed 32 of 42 passes for 323 yards and a touchdown, without an interception. He wasn't sacked.
"That's the first game he's played at left tackle in I don't know how long," Brees said. "It was all quiet on the left side there, I can say that."
Also, the Saints played a good portion of the game without left cornerback Delvin Breaux and middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, who exited with injuries. Strief, who missed last week's game with an injury, also briefly left the game to deal with an ailment.
But New Orleans never broke against Atlanta.
The Falcons took a 3-0 lead on Shayne Graham's 51-yard field goal with 6:43 left in the first quarter, only to watch New Orleans come back with a touchdown drive. Hightower (16 carries, 66 yards) ended the eight-play, 70-yard march with a 1-yard run that gave the Saints a 7-3 lead with 3:13 left in the first.
The Falcons retook the lead on a 42-yard, catch-and-run from Ryan to tight end Tony Moeaki just 36 seconds into the second quarter, and the Saints responded with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Benjamin Watson to end a nine-play, 68-yard drive with 10:47 left in the half.
The 14-10 lead stood for most of the rest of the quarter – defensive end Cam Jordan blocked a 45-yard field goal attempt by Graham with 7:12 left, and the Saints failed to convert on fourth-and-1 from Atlanta's 17-yard line to end its next drive.
Atlanta closed out the half with an 83-yard touchdown drive (Ryan's 4-yard pass to Freeman ended it, with 26 seconds left) and the Saints trailed 17-14 at halftime.
But the defense kept producing critical stops in the second half – the Falcons amassed 157 yards in the second half after producing 262 in the first – and the two turnovers, and the offense scraped together the six points necessary to win.
"It feels good because when you establish a relationship with your teammates, playing for each other is a big thing for us," Jenkins said. "When you establish a relationship like that, you want to go out and look at each other in the eye and let them know you've got their back through the toughest times."
"To finish this season winning three of four, the manner in which we did at times, really total team victories, we've got a great group of guys," Brees said. "Great character, continued to fight despite having a lot of guys banged up, especially down the stretch.
"A lot of young guys stepped up and really played some productive roles for us. It gets you excited about the future."