ATLANTA — The instant it happened — at the exact moment New Orleans wide receiver Robert Meachem soared high in the back of the end zone to snare an over-the-shoulder grab to again move his Saints ahead of the Falcons late in Sunday's third quarter — it appeared to be the biggest play of a very big NFC South football game.
“Huge momentum shift,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said later of the former University of Tennessee wide receiver. “That retook the lead. That sent a message that we were sticking around.”
But then the Falcons decided to stick around, too. Stick around until they could force overtime against their bitter rivals. Stick around until … um … Atlanta coach Mike Smith decided to go for it on 4th and 1 at his own 29-yard line.
And that's where Meachem's spectacular 33-yard TD became yesterday's news, along with his 36-yard catch he made of a Brees pass that almost hit the turf.
Because good as Meachem was, he couldn't begin to match the drama and debate surrounding Smith's failed gamble.
After all, four plays after Smith called a timeout in order to send Michael Turner into the middle of the line for no gain, the Saints’ John Kasay — a former Georgia Bulldog, no less — booted his fourth field goal, this one from 26 yards out, to make New Orleans a 26-23 winner.
If that victory margin sounds familiar, it should. The Saints have now beaten the Falcons three straight inside the Georgia Dome, all three victories won by three points.
“I did not want to give the football back to the Saints,” said Smith when asked about his decision to go for it on fourth down at his own 29-yard line in overtime.
“In previous games, we’ve punted the ball … [and] we never saw it again, and they ended up winning the ball game. If we're not going to move the ball two or three inches, we’re probably not going to win.”
Countered Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis: “We were pretty much lined up to stop the play they ran. I thought they were going to audible out of it. I guess they thought their offensive line was better than our defensive line. Thankfully, they were wrong.”
It was a shocking conclusion to a game that had been about as good as it gets in the drama department for much of the afternoon. No team ever led by more than 10 points, and the Falcons rallied from 10 down in the final 4:13 of regulation to force overtime.
“I thought it was a heckuva football game,” said Smith. “I take full responsibility [for the failed fourth down]. Unfortunately, the decision did not work out.”
Whether that decision ultimately beat the Falcons or not, they fall to 5-4 on the season as New Orleans improves to 7-3 heading into its bye week. In a game that should probably be played in Chattanooga — given the Scenic City's near-equal distance from both Atlanta and Nashville — the Falcons next host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at 4:15.
Between now and then, they'll almost assuredly want to figure out how they outgained the Saints by more than 100 yards (481 to 363), controlled the clock for six and a half more minutes and posted 12 more first downs, yet still lost.
Then again, Brees is 9-2 against the Falcons since joining the Saints.
“His work ethic is just unmatched,” said Meachem of Brees. “Plus, he's probably the most accurate quarterback I've ever seen. He always puts the ball right where it needs to be — where you can get it and the defensive back can't.”
But Meachem also made Brees look pretty good with both the TD grab and his 36-yard catch that came so close to the ground that Smith threw the red flag to challenge the completion. Just like his fourth down call, the Falcons coach also lost that challenge.
As for the Vols’ losing ways, Meachem said, “I've been keeping up with them. Saw some of the Arkansas game. They've been having a rough go. But [Derek] Dooley's a good coach. He'll get it figured out.”
The Saints apparently have it figured out that they're a better team with a UT presence. Meachem is one of four Vols — the other three being starting nose tackle Aubrayo Frankline, starting defensive back Jabari Greer and Turk McBride — on the current roster.
“It's great,” said Meachem, now in his fifth season. “We're a big family. And Marvin Mitchell used to be here before he went to the Dolphins.”
What may be most amazing about the Saints are their fans. There was so much black and gold among the 70,359 inside the Georgia Dome it was tough to tell who had more support.
“Yeah, they talk a lot of trash,” said New Orleans defensive lineman Will Smith, “then expect us to back it up.”
Nine of the last 11 meetings between these two, the Saints have backed their fans about as well as you can.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...