Atlanta – More encouragement than discouragement wafted through the visitors' locker room Sunday in the Georgia Dome, even as New Orleans Saints players were minutes removed from listening to the home crowd roar its approval of the Falcons following Atlanta's 37-34 overtime victory over the Saints in the regular-season opener.
Clearly, the result wasn't what New Orleans wanted. But the to-a-man feeling was that if the Saints consistently are going to expend that kind of effort, while clipping off some of the frayed ends that developed during the game, then New Orleans is going to be a serious player in 2014.
"Everyone is so hungry for information on who this team is, because we just waited six months to find out," right tackle Zach Strief said. "So the natural feeling is to jump to, 'Is this indicative of how this team is going to play all season?' And to be perfectly honest with you, I hope it is. Because I think we played well, (but) we didn't make plays at the end. And that's the NFL.
"It's every week, who's making plays at the end of the game. It's rare to win a game by 21 points in this league. I don't think anyone in here is hanging their head. Just like we didn't in (after a season-opening road loss to Green Bay in) '11, and that was a tough deal. I think we got stopped three plays from the 1-yard line to lose that game.
"That's a tough deal, and yet if you win that game it doesn't guarantee you success and if you lose it, it doesn't guarantee you failure. This team will be in a race to get better and I think we feel good about who this team is, we just don't feel good about how we finished."
The finish was a sprint and Atlanta leaned first through the tape, courtesy of Matt Bryant's 52-yard field goal with 13:17 left in overtime, his second 50-plus yarder of the game.
His 51-yarder, as time expired in regulation, tied the score at 34 and forced overtime.
In overtime, after the Saints won the coin toss and began the possession at their 20-yard line following a touchback, Drew Brees threw incomplete to Marques Colston on first down, and then connected with him for 13 yards on second down.
But Colston was stripped from behind by Falcons safety William Moore, and Atlanta linebacker Joplo Bartu* *recovered at the 38. The play left Colston, the Saints' all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, virtually inconsolable.
"He's won a lot of games for us," Coach Sean Payton said of Colston. "When you get into overtime it can appear to be one play but there's a series plays throughout the course of the game."
Following the turnover, Falcons running back Steven Jackson ran for a total of four yards on first and second down, quarterback Matt Ryan threw incomplete on third down and Bryant kicked the game-winner on fourth-and-6.
"(It was a) tough game to lose," Payton said. "Every once in a while you get in one of those games where the score goes back and forth, and it's small details. Especially when you're in overtime, (it) just magnifies any little mistake.
"I thought we played hard and yet, it still wasn't good enough. Credit Atlanta. They did a great job today. Again, it was a tough way to start but we'll bounce back.
"Someone smart told me once that when you get in some of these games where the score is going back and forth, we need to score one more. (Atlanta is) a good offense, some real talented players. Do we want to play better? Absolutely. We'll make the corrections."
The Saints scored on all four possessions in the first half – two touchdowns and two field goals – and took a 20-7 lead before the Falcons finished out the half with Bryant's 40-yard field goal to pull Atlanta to within 10.
But the Saints went scoreless in the third quarter, while the Falcons constructed two 80-yard touchdown drives, each ending on a touchdown pass by Ryan (31 for 43 for 448 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions), who posted the best passing day in franchise history.
After Atlanta took its 24-20 lead, the teams traded punches.
Saints running back Mark Ingram's 3-yard run capped an 80-yard touchdown drive to put the Saints ahead 27-24. Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers answered with a 17-yard scoring run to give Atlanta a 31-27 lead with 2:50 left.
Ingram again scored from 3 yards out to give New Orleans a 34-31 lead with 1:20 left, setting the stage for Bryant's tying field goal as time expired.
Ryan's historic passing day was needed by the Falcons to combat Brees and the Saints offense. Brees completed 29 of 42 passes for 333 yards and a touchdown, with an interception. But the interception, Brees noted, was a costly one.
In the third quarter, after driving the Saints from their 20 to the Falcons' 14-yard line, Brees' pass, intended for rookie receiver Brandin Cooks (seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, and one run for 18 yards), was intercepted in the end zone on third-and-7.
"If I could put that thing a foot more in front of Cooks, it's a touchdown instead of an interception," Brees said. "It was a good decision, I just didn't put the ball out there far enough and when you have a game like this, it's those plays that make the difference."
Statistically, the game was fairly even. Atlanta outgained New Orleans 568-472, but the teams almost were identical in first downs (30-28, Saints), third-down conversions (8 for 13 by New Orleans, 6 for 11 by Atlanta), rushing yards (139-123, Saints) and time of possession (31:18-30:25, Falcons).
But the Saints lost the turnover battle 2-1 and, understandably, both the offense and its defense felt it could have been more effective.
"They made plays," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We had calls – perfect calls called – and we've just got to go out and make the plays. They made them.
"You've got to get off the field on third down, you've got to play great red zone defense and you've got to tackle well. If you do that, you win the game. We didn't do that, so we lost. Credit goes to them. We'll be back on Monday to get this thing fixed."
Brees, on behalf of the offense, said: "I felt like we had our opportunities offensively. At times we didn't cash in. There are games that you walk away from and the score is 37-34 and maybe, the assumption is that the defense didn't stop them. We should have scored more points offensively. That's on us because we didn't score one more point than they had.
"And then there's games where you lose 10-7 and coach is in there saying, 'Hey, defense, this is one of those game where you had to stop them and keep them from scoring more than us.' I think today is one of those games where offensively, we needed to score more. We had chances to score more, (and) we didn't."
Now, they and their teammates will begin the process of cleaning up the errors and improving the positives before the Saints travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns next Sunday.