A Super Bowl participant just three years ago, Atlanta has since fallen on hard times, shuffling around the coaching staff in recent days -- a move akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic -- in an effort to save Dan Quinn's hide. At 1-7, the Falcons' season appeared lost, while in New Orleans, the 7-1 Saints, with Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara back in the saddle, appeared rejuvenated.
And yet, when the field-turf equivalent of dust settled inside the Superdome on Sunday afternoon, Atlanta was victorious -- and in a landslide. The Falcons crushed the Saints, 26-9, becoming the first team to hold New Orleans under 10 points in its building during the Drew Brees era.
"They beat us well in all three areas, they played better than us. Pick a situation and there's a good chance they won that situation," Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game. "Third down, they were better on both sides of the ball. Penalties, they were better. So collectively, we've got to do a better job. That starts with me."
Atlanta sacked Brees six times on Sunday; the Falcons had just seven on the season coming into the game. New Orleans committed a uncharacteristically high 12 penalties and finished just 3-for-12 on third down. Kamara, the Saints' do-everything back, did next to nothing on the ground, held to 24 rushing yards on just four carries.
"It's kind of one of those ... it's not a lesson, but this league is too good week-to-week where you can go in and not be focused and ready," Payton said. "This has always been a game that's always played with emotion and I thought they outplayed us. They outplayed us, they outcoached us and they deserve to win."
Up next for the Saints are more division rivals; New Orleans plays Tampa Bay, Carolina and then Atlanta again over the next three weeks.
For the Saints to remain near the top of the NFC playoff picture (and the South), they will have to rebound and get right against teams that know them best. As New Orleans learned Sunday, records don't matter when rivals come to town.