Right off the bat, the New Orleans Saints stole a possession, and it turned out to be critical.
It was a tone-setter and momentum-establisher, and immediately said – emphatically – that the lethargic performance that the Saints had turned in 18 days earlier wouldn’t be repeated.
The theft wasn’t the result of a turnover, but it might as well have been in the Saints’ 26-18 victory over the Falcons on Thanksgiving night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
What it was, though, was vintage Taysom Hill.
The Saints’ No. 3 quarterback is a No. 1 threat any time he’s on the field, and that includes as a punt rusher. Because that’s where he made his initial impact in the win that clinched New Orleans’ third consecutive NFC South Division title.
On the opening drive, the Saints defense forced a three-and-out and a punt, with defensive end Marcus Davenport posting a sack and forced fumble on first down (Atlanta recovered), defensive tackle David Onyemata stuffing a run for no gain on second down, and linebacker Kiko Alonso making a tackle after a 4-yard gain on a pass.
On fourth-and-13 from the Atlanta 22, Hill entered the fray.
Falcons punter Ryan Allen took the snap and attempted to kick, but Hill, who never will be accused of taking a break during a play, was able to get his left hand on the ball while being blocked. It wasn’t a clean block, but the deflected punt traveled just eight yards, to the 30, and the Saints’ offense took advantage of the gift.
New Orleans drove to the Atlanta 3 in three plays and from there, on first-and-goal, Drew Brees threw a short pass to Hill, who followed his blockers on the right side and bulled his way into the end zone to give the Saints a 7-0 lead.
It was early – 11:07 remained in the first quarter – but the Saints, and Hill, already had shown that they were on a mission.