With just under a minute remaining in the first half of the Atlanta Falcons’ Week 16 road matchup against the Saints, quarterback Matt Ryan and his offense, trailing 6-0, line up on their own 48-yard line for a 3rd and 10.
The roar of the raucous sellout crowd is deafening, and the Falcons must block out the din to steal a score before halftime. The Saints’ defense has stifled their offensive attack thus far, so a quick score either to take the lead or bring them within three would boost moral heading into a halftime meeting where adjustments must be made. The stakes are high.
A Saints victory would bring an NFC South division title back to the Big Easy. To win the division in consecutive years, the Falcons must win their final two games. If they drop this one, their mission to avenge a Super Bowl defeat becomes more arduous: A playoff game away from home is daunting enough; missing the playoffs altogether would be a disaster. It’s a classic battle between bitter rivals.
As the play develops, Ryan gets excited. The two receivers on his right are accompanied by two Saints corners, and the one receiver on Ryan’s left faces zone coverage from Marshon Lattimore, who is lined up about ten yards from the line of scrimmage. A single high safety patrols potential deep passes.
Two Saints linebackers lineup over the center; one rushes, and the other retreats. A tight end runs a crossing pattern and forces the linebacker, Craig Robertson, to momentarily guard him while safety Vonn Bell scrambles into coverage. The collision is quick, yet is it long enough to prevent Robertson from enforcing his middle zone.
The ball is snapped, and Ryan sees the gaping hole in the middle of the field. He knows that Falcons superstar wideout Julio Jones, after seeing two targets previously on the drive, is on the sidelines. His normal position is occupied by Marvin Hall, a young journeyman who has caught only two passes all season. Hall is running a 10-yard in route into the gap of the defense, and Ryan has no choice but to trust him.
Hall cuts and pops open, Ryan delivers a spiral in perfect position for a routine catch, with space to pick up additional yards. As Lattimore stumbles to the ground, Hall lets the ball slip through his fingers and slowly fall toward the ground.
However, this ball will never touch the turf, deciding to rest comfortably on Lattimore’s rear. Marcus Williams, who had abandoned his perch at safety, dives at the ball to secure it before it can roll harmlessly to the ground. Instead of recovering it, Williams gently touches the pigskin to prevent it from rolling off Lattimore’s unaware posterior. Now conscious of the opportunity, Lattimore rolls his leg, reaches back, and gains possession right before Hall attempts to bat it away. Saints’ ball at their own 36.
Drew Brees and the Saints potent offensive attack do not squander this gift from above, connecting on a 54-yard touchdown pass three plays later to widen their lead to 13-0 at halftime.
The Black and Gold now have all the momentum in the most important game of the season based on a bizarre confluence of events: a chance collision, a poorly-timed substitution, a dropped pass, a random physics-defying interception, and deep touchdown pass.
The Saints rode that wave of the momentum to a dominant 23-13 win, and it wasn’t even that close: Atlanta’s lone touchdown came late in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided.
Lattimore’s interception was a turning point. Had the Falcons scored on that promising drive that ended on a Saint’s butt, the flow of the game would have been significantly altered. Such is usually the case in the NFL. The games that are played on a field measuring yards are decided by mere inches.
That turnover clinched a home playoff game and placed the team on a collision course with the Minnesota Vikings, allowing the young team to draw rare, valuable experience from a deep playoff run. Yes, the Minneapolis Miracle that ended the Saints’ divisional round playoff contest against the Vikings was agonizing for all New Orleanians involved. But just like Lattimore’s pick, the Miracle’s effects will reverberate throughout the league, with the potential to manifest positively in the Saints: A football team hungry to avenge a heartbreaking playoff exit is one that cannot be overlooked.
The Saints will enter the season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders for one of very few times in franchise history. However, it’s important to understand lessons learned from Lattimore’s interception, that hopes can be fulfilled and dreams can be dashed instantly in the NFL.
Recently, the playoffs have had an average of roughly 50% turnover from year-to-year. That trend coupled with ample improved teams in the NFC give the Saints a slim margin for error.
All but one starter from 2017 returns, and a coaching staff and a leader in Drew Brees have played in February before. The draft night trade for DE Marcus Davenport signals that the team is on a mission to win Brees one more ring before he retires. That title must come now.
During the regular season, Super Bowl teams are often buoyed by a magical vibe surrounding the team, as witnessed in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Carolina recently. If fortune is on the Big Easy’s side again this season, we’ll know it. Maybe it will all lead to a glorious conclusion to the Drew Brees era.