ATLANTA -- Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints' passing attack can be so efficient and so lethal at times that it can inspire opponents to do some unusual things.
Like going for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime from your own 29-yard line.
On Sunday the Saints came away with a key NFC South victory, 26-23 in overtime over host Atlanta, when Falcons head coach Mike Smith did exactly that and the Saints' defense made the play of the game with a stop.
Stymied by the problem that the Falcons couldn't get any pressure on Brees Atlanta did not sack him or intercept him Smith feared that his offense would not get the ball back and rolled the dice with 10:52 left in overtime.
Michael Turner, who ran the ball for 96 yards on 22 carries, took a handoff and was hit behind the line of scrimmage by the tandem of defensive end Will Smith and 350-pound nose tackle Shaun Rogers for no gain, as the Saints got a huge push from the line, seemingly timing the snap perfectly. The play bailed out a Saints' defense that blew a 10-point lead in the final 4:13 of regulation, as Atlanta rallied to tie on a field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter.
But three plays after the Saints' big fourth-down stop in overtime, John Kasay kicked a 26-yard chip shot for the win.
"I wanted us to go for it," Mike Smith said of a timeout before the play when he called back the punting team. "I thought that the ball was inside a half yard and thought that we could get it. I did not want to give the football back to the Saints. In previous games, in close games that we've played them, we've punted the ball and they've gotten the ball back with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process that I went through."
The decision-making process that Saints head coach Sean Payton still on crutches but back on the sidelines in a surprise move for the first time since breaking his leg and suffering a torn MCL when Saints tight end Jimmy Graham collided with him during a game on Oct. 16 was to call timeout once he got a look at what the Falcons were going to attempt.
He matched Atlanta's heavy personnel with his own heavy personnel.
"It was really just trying to get the right personnel on the field to match their offensive personnel," Payton said.
Will Smith said Payton's presence back on the sidelines can motivate in multiple ways.
"When he's down there, he talks a lot so I don't know," said the eight-year veteran, a Pro-Bowler in 2006, of the coach's effect. "Some guys like him to be up in the booth. I think it does give us an advantage, especially offensively, just because he's always in those guys' ears and he's the guy who's orchestrating a lot of stuff. So it gives the offense an advantage and every now then it gives us defensive guys an advantage because he yells at us."
Payton said the idea behind returning a few weeks early to the field after several games in the press box was "let's get back to the way we're used to functioning." His being in the press box had created logistical problems with his getting to the locker room at halftime and also, at times, with play-calling.
"It was pretty simple," he said. "I mean, we've been doing pretty good with the rehab and I just felt like we could be smart where it was at. So really it wasn't a big issue. I just tried to stay behind the ball. It really just felt like this was an important game and having that presence on the sideline, I think is important. Talked with the doctors this morning. Planned on just being smart and went ahead and did it."
The Saints offensive players could only watch with the game on the line in overtime. Nonetheless, Brees said that Smith's decision is part of the "chess match" that goes on in the NFL and that he understands a head coach's dilemma in that situation but said it takes some "steel you know what to make that call."
Brees wasn't sure if fear of the Saints' passing attack he finished 30-of-43 for 322 yards with two touchdowns for a 106.9 quarterback rating led to Smith's decision.
"You know, I'm not sure," Bhe said. "Like I said, that's a decision that every head coach has to make at some point. Do we go for it or do we punt? Listen, that's football.
That's the chess match. I think it shows how much confidence they have in their offense and their ability to get a yard. I'd like to think we would've done the same thing."
For much of the game, Brees carved up the Falcons' secondary. He completed passes to 10 different receivers but first and foremost was wide receiver Marques Colston, who was targeted nine times and caught eight passes for 113 yards. Payton said he thought it was one of Colston's best games in a long time.
"I've actually been waiting for this game for myself for a while," Colston said. "Drew was able to find me early and I was able to get in a good rhythm."
Part of the reason was the blocking of the offensive line, which neutralized the Falcons' pass rush. The Falcons most stayed in their base defense on first and second down, seemingly to neutralize the Saints' running game, and that worked. New Orleans ran the ball for only 41 yards on 16 attempts.
The flip side was that the Falcons didn't blitz much and, with the defensive line mostly quiet, Brees had all day to throw. Numerous Saints said protection was a focal point in meetings all week long.
"Our offensive line did a tremendous job today," Brees said. "We asked our offensive and defensive lines this week to really control the trenches, as we felt that this is how this game was going to be won. You look at how clean they kept me and the huge fourth-down stop by the defensive front at the end of the game and you can say those guys got the job done."
As did Brees, encouraging some difficult choices for the opposition that proved fatal.