Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 13: Saints at Falcons Week 10

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About five years ago, I drove out to Norman, Okla. -- home of the Sooners, home of a lot of yellow grass on the side of the freeway and home of one Barry Switzer.

Make that one much-maligned former NFL head coach. Maligned for his laissez-faire approach to coaching; maligned for not winning the 1994 NFC Championship and dissolving hopes of the NFL’s first “three-peat”; maligned for not being Jimmy Johnson. And ultimately, he was tarred and feathered for a fateful decision made in Philadelphia, Week 15, 1995: going for fourth-and-short from Dallas’ own 29. Twice.

Fail.

“That wasn’t the difference in the game,” Switzer told me on that day.

Switzer didn’t seem too bothered by that or anything else in his humble but tastefully done office, complete with awards, rings and letterman jackets nearly 50 years old. He leaned back in his chair and freely admitted that he shouldn’t get too much credit for the Cowboys’ win in Super Bowl XXX or too much blame for their free fall in ‘97. That’s his way, far removed from the piss-and-vinegar coach who roamed the sidelines at OU, or one who would be overly defensive upon getting ridiculed for a decision, like going for it on fourth down in a loss.

“You believe in your players, you believe in your team. And, you try to win the game,” Switzer said.

Try to win. As opposed to ... try not to lose. Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith attempted to do the former in our No. 13 game of 2011. Call it an unlucky 13, as Smith’s decision didn’t work out either.

With the game tied at 23-23 in overtime, the Falcons went for it on fourth down deep in their own territory in an attempt to keep Drew Brees and the Saints from getting a second possession in the extra period. Already trailing the Saints by a half game in the NFC South, Smith chose to be proactive, putting the ball -- and game -- in his team’s hands.

Most fans and critics at least accepted Smith’s reasoning. It was the same determination Bill Belichick made in 2009, staring a fourth-and-short in one eye with Peyton Manning and the explosive Colts offense a speck in the other eye.

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What’s ironic for Smith’s Falcons is that fourth-and-nothing from the 29 is EXACTLY the down and distance Switzer found himself in back in ‘95. Except the enemy was not a quarterback of Brees’ ilk, but a 20 mph wind that would surely take the starch out of the collar on punter John Jett’s kick. Why kick it when you have deuce-deuce in the backfield? Emmitt Smith was in the midst of a 1,773-yard campaign, with a Pro Bowl fullback in Moose Johnston, as well as the best offensive line in football. Why not go for it?

Done and done. Sit your butt down, John Jett. Let’s win this thing. But then Smith was stuffed ... twice. The Cowboys running back was thrown back on the first attempt, but officials blew the play dead because the two-minute warning came before the snap. Smith -- and Switzer -- were given another shot. Same playcall (thank you, OC Ernie Zampese), same result. Ouch.

Mike Smith might not have had Emmitt Smith, but he did have Michael Turner, a 1,300-yard power back in his own right. Pretty decent line, too. Give Turner the rock. Don’t give Brees -- the guy with a Super Bowl ring and a 5,000-yard season under his belt -- the ball in sudden death, unless you want your team to die suddenly.

Turner met Shaun Rogers and Will Smith before he met any daylight. No gain. Saints ball at the Falcon 29. You can guess what happened from there. John Kasay converted the anticlimactic field goal moments later. Boom goes the dynamite.

Smith owned it postgame: 'I know it will be scrutinized all week long. I want everyone to understand I take full responsibility.'

While there were harsh reviews of Smith’s decision from some sects of the media, most of the comments were softballs compared to the heaters Switzer had to endure. Atlanta had played solid defense in the first half, forced overtime with a late drive and gave New Orleans all it could handle.

Switzer never seemed to live his own gamble down with critics, despite winning it all later that season. And his explanation for earning that Super Bowl ring -- despite road blocks like the one in Philly -- is quite simple.

'Good players,” Switzer told me. “I had the better players.'

So did the Saints, who’ve won a whopping 37 regular-season games over the last three years. Which is why Smith’s move made sense. Unless you want your coach to play not to lose.

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Same ol’ situation: Brees looked for tight Jimmy Graham all season long, with head coach and play caller Sean Payton consistently creating mismatches for his Pro Bowl tight end. You’d think a defense would keep close tabs on a guy who ended the season with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, but not on this touchdown in the first half.

Graham was open by 10 yards (or more) in the end zone. As if that wasn’t worth noticing, his two-handed slam over the goal posts sure was. Georgia Dome personnel had to come out and reset the uprights.

(Boneheaded) Play of the game: Mike Smith’s fourth-down call would have never occurred if Saints safety Roman Harper didn’t drop a sure interception late.

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Trailing 23-20 late in the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan led the Falcons into field goal range, connecting three times with Harry Douglas for 63 yards. But before kicking the game-tying field goal, the Falcons tried to get the go-ahead touchdown on second down. Attempting to hit Tony Gonzalez down the seam, the ball sailed on Ryan ... right into Harper’s hands. That would’ve been ballgame, had Harper hung on.

Controversial call: Is there any debate which play, or play call, this is? Here’s one more look at Atlanta’s ill-fated fourth down. Michael Turner never had a chance.

Record breakers: With 30 completions in the game, Brees extended his NFL record to 30 straight games with at least 20 completed passes. Brees’ mark now stands at 36 straight heading into the 2012 season.

Why this game is No. 13: The Falcons and Saints have played some hard-fought battles over the last couple seasons, but Smith’s call added a different dimension to this contest. Yes, this matchup was integral to both the NFC South and playoff races, and yes, it was a tight, 26-23 contest. But what made this game really special was Smith pushing all his chips to the center of the table. (Even though it was an ill-fated move.)

Why not higher?: The slow nature of the first half and mistakes that would have changed the game (like Harper’s drop and Graham’s holding penalty on a Kasay field goal late in the fourth) keep this contest from ranking higher. Ultimately, these clubs would meet again in 2011 -- with New Orleans rampaging to a 45-16 win -- diminishing some of the stakes in Week 10. But none of those facts will erase the memory of a Smith’s failed gamble.

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