Atlanta – Yes, the game was against the Falcons, a bitter division rival bent on extracting a pound of joy from the New Orleans Saints' season. And, yes, the matchup was another nationally televised appearance for the Saints, who now have played in each of the prime time slots this year, Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights.
But just as much, or more, Thursday at the Georgia Dome was the completion of a three-games-in-12-days, show-what-you're-made-of gut check for the Saints.
And let's just say that the Saints aren't lacking in the department of intestinal fortitude. Let's say, emphatically, that their hearts check out just fine.
New Orleans' 17-13 victory over Atlanta allowed it to sweep the season series against the Falcons, improve to 9-2 this season, claim wins in each game of the three-game minefield, remain atop the NFC South Division by a game ahead of Carolina in the loss column, and stay a game off Seattle's pace for the best record in the NFC.
All in all, having nearly a quarter of a season crammed into a 12-day sack, the Saints were able to emerge sore and bruised, but perfect.
"It's that time of year when you've got to be your best," said quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.
"It shows what kind of demeanor we have," said running back Pierre Thomas, the offensive workhorse with 15 touches for 130 yards (10 carries for 73 yards and five catches for 57). "This is one game we needed and we fought hard for."
Indeed, the Saints scrapped until the win was secured over Atlanta (2-9). !(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/New-Orleans-Saints-Locker-Room-at-Falcons/0e83f456-2361-4ffa-ab9c-438401018de9 "new orleans saints")
The offense produced just enough and the defense came through once again, in a season of producing under fire. New Orleans' defense allowed 355 yards, ending at two games its streak of allowing fewer than 200 yards.
But it produced five sacks, forced the game's only turnover (Keyunta Dawson's strip and Corey White's fumble recovery) and pitched a second-half shutout against a team it only forced to punt once in the first half.
"This is the NFL, (and) that's what it comes down to," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "Can your defense get their offense off the field, and get the ball back to your great offense?"
The answer, as it has been many times this season, was, "Yes."
Defensive ends Cameron Jordan (2.5) and Akiem Hicks (1.5) combined for four of the team's five sacks, three in the second half, and the Falcons didn't score after posting a touchdown and two field goals on their first three possessions.
"It felt good to be productive and get some things done," Hicks said.
"This was the test," Jordan added. "We had a quick turnaround (from a Sunday afternoon game to a Thursday night game).
"We knew it was going to be a physical, tough game. We know them, they know us. For us to come out and win was huge."
The game didn't start according to plan, with the Saints winning the coin toss, choosing possession and punting after a three-and-out. Atlanta promptly drove 76 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead on Steven Jackson's 1-yard run with 8:48 left in the first quarter.
But the Saints responded with one of their best offensive drives of the season – 15 plays, 78 yards, lasting 7:31 and ending on a 1-yard pass from Brees to tight end Benjamin Watson, tying the score with 1:17 left in the first.
The Falcons countered with a 39-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to cap a seven-play, 59-yard drive, only to have the Saints rebound in the best possible way. New Orleans posted its second consecutive touchdown drive, this one traveling 80 yards on five plays, lasting just 128 seconds and concluding on a 44-yard pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.
The touchdown catch was part of a big night for Graham (five catches, 100 yards). It was his 11th touchdown catch of the season, tying his career high from two seasons ago. And the 100-yard game was his sixth of the season, tying a franchise single-season mark set by Joe Horn.
The Falcons again regrouped and constructed a scoring drive. Their 14-play, 74-yard march stalled at the Saints' 6-yard line, and Bryant's 24-yard chip shot pulled Atlanta to within 14-13 with 2:41 left in the half.
But that concluded Atlanta's offensive display. The Saints carried their 14-13 lead into halftime, posted a 41-yard Garrett Hartley field goal in the third quarter, and made it stand behind a defense that forced two punts and a turnover, and kept the Falcons away far enough for Bryant to miss a 52-yard field goal attempt, on four of Atlanta's final five possessions.
The Falcons' best scoring opportunity of the second half was on the drive that ended on White's fumble recovery.
That possession began at Atlanta's 20-yard line with 4:37 left in the third quarter, and stretched into the fourth as the Falcons drove to the Saints' 22. On second-and-8, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (30 for 39 for 292 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions) completed a 2-yard pass to receiver Darius Johnson in the left flat. But as Johnson curled back inside toward traffic, Dawson tracked him from behind and jarred the ball loose on his tackle. White fell on it at the Saints' 13-yard line and the Saints had possession with 13:05 left.
New Orleans burned 5:04 off the game clock while driving to Atlanta's 47-yard line before punting.
Thomas Morstead pinned the Falcons at their 9 on a 38-yard punt with 7:53 left, and Dawson and Parys Haralson shared a 6-yard sack to push Atlanta back to its 3 on first down. Ryan completed passes of 6 and 13 yards to give his team a first down at the 22, then drove it to the Saints' 29 in six plays before being sacked by Jordan for a 5-yard loss on second-and-10.
He threw incomplete on third down and Bryant missed wide left on his 52-yard attempt with 2:19 left.
From there the Saints manufactured two first downs, including one on a 16-yard run by Thomas on second-and-8, forced Atlanta to use all three of its timeouts and handed the ball over on downs with five seconds left.
"We knew it was going to be a challenge," Coach Sean Payton said. "It is every time we play them. The history of our time playing Atlanta, it's always been challenging.
"It was a good win – a good win on the road in a tough place to play."
It was all that, and more – a difficult, 12-day grind in which the Saints walked away fatigued and battered, but victorious.