This Saints performance is an all-time head-scratcher

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Drew Brees
(Photo: Parker Waters)

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints played a silver lining-free game Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

They entered the game on a six-game winning streak that had given them a 7-1 record. They lost to an Atlanta Falcons team that was 1-7 after losing their last six games.

The final score was Atlanta 26, New Orleans 9, which probably isn’t a sufficient margin to demonstrate the disparity in the quality of play from the long-time division rivals.

The Falcons defense dominated the Saints offense.

The Falcons offense outplayed the Saints defense.

The Falcons even outdid the Saints on special teams, even though Wil Lutz provided all of the Saints’ points by making all three of his field goals attempts. Younghoe Koo was 4 for 4 in his Atlanta debut.

The Falcons coaching staff – led by embattled Dan Quinn, who probably was coaching in the Superdome for the final time as Atlanta’s head coach – was several steps ahead of Sean Payton and the Saints coaching staff.

“Collectively we’ve got to do a better job and that starts with me,” Payton said.

Both teams were coming off bye weeks. The Falcons looked like a prideful team that took advantage of the extra time to regroup. The Saints looked like a team that went on vacation for the bye, which they essentially did.

“Pick a situation,” Payton said, “and there’s a good chance they won that situation.”

Payton zeroed in on third downs. Atlanta was 6 for 15 and New Orleans was 3 for 12.

“Third down is money down,” Saints defensive back P.J. Williams said.

On fourth down Atlanta was 1 for 1 and New Orleans was 0 for 3.

Speaking of 0 for 3, the Saints reached the red zone three times and didn’t score on any of them.

Atlanta rushed for 143 yards and New Orleans rushed for a season-low 52. The Saints also had a season-low in time of possession (26 minutes, 14 seconds).

The Saints did have more passing yards (258-174), but 77 of those yards came on the final possession of the game when the Falcons were focused on preventing big plays. Even with all of Drew Brees’ dinking and dunking, the Saints couldn’t get to the end zone when Michael Thomas was tackled just short of the goal line on a fourth-down catch as time expired.

Forget the passing yards. Matt Ryan had two touchdown passes. Brees was sacked six times by a defense that entered the game with seven sacks for the season.

“The great equalizer in any game is the pass rush,” Brees said.

It’s hard to decide which area was the Saints’ worst, but the offensive line would be in that conversation both before and after starting left guard Andrus Peat left the game for good with an injury to his right arm that he suffered in the second quarter.

Another area where the Saints were particularly terrible was penalties. They were penalized 12 times for 90 yards. Six times a New Orleans penalty gave Atlanta a first down.

The penalties pretty much ran the gamut – offensive holding, defensive holding, tripping, facemask, delay of game, roughing the kicker and false start (two). But by far the most popular infraction was illegal use of the hands, which the Saints defense did four different times by four different players.

“I thought the officiating was pretty good in this game,” Payton said. “That had nothing to do with this game.”

He was right on both counts. All of the calls were legit and take all of them away and the Saints still would have lost.

Brees was playing his second game since returning from a five-game absence due to thumb surgery and he had two weeks of recuperation after his return.

He got back three key weapons that had been injured – running back Alvin Kamara, tight end Jared Cook and wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith. And the Saints were held without a touchdown for the third time this season.

Bad offense. Bad defense. Bad coaching.

From what is still one of the best teams in the NFL.

It was the 100th regular-season meeting between the two long-time division rivals and Atlanta increased its lead in the series to 52-48.

There have been a lot of memorable games in the series, which includes some gut-wrenching losses for New Orleans.

This one won’t match “Big Ben” or “Grover Klemmer” in that regard, but as head-scratchers go it might have set the standard.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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