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2013 NFL Grades, Week 12: Saints survive critical NFC game

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

Joe Flacco (USATSI)
Ben Watson catches one of Drew Brees' two TDs. (USATSI)

It nearly got ugly for New Orleans on Thursday night. A loss in Atlanta would've meant they were two games back of the Seahawks -- who they play next Monday in Seattle -- for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Instead New Orleans picked up a huge divisional win against a hated rival that serves as the meat in a tough NFC West sandwich.

The Saints also would've been tied in the NFC South with the Panthers, who they get on a short week two weeks from now. But that's not the case -- New Orleans has a shot to unseat the Seahawks by going out west and taming the fierce Seattle crowd.

For as uninteresting as that game was -- and it was a good game but it never felt particularly exciting -- it was a must-win contest for New Orleans. They weren't anywhere near perfect but good enough to pick up a critical divisional road victory.

10 takeaways from Thursday night's game:

1.) There's no such thing as an easy game in the NFL. The Falcons stink, they have no offensive line and were missing most of their weapons and they still nearly upset the Saints.

2.) Matt Ryan remains underrated. No he's not putting his team on his back and taking them to the playoffs without all his playmakers. But he's dealing with a miserable offensive line. He consistently moved in a completely muddled pocket and made plays to his wide receivers.

3.) Did Mike Smith make the right move when he kicked the field goal late on fourth down while down four points? You could argue it either way I think. He had three timeouts -- and the two-minute warning -- and needed to get 15 yards for the first down. Kicking meant you get within one, can kick the ball off and attempt to stop the Saints. It's not easy to stop Drew Brees, obviously, but he gave the Falcons a chance to get within one point. It backfired so it's easy to rip the move, but there are some merits to Smith's decision. No one's sitting on a fourth-and-15 play.

4.) Should Smith be worried?

No, he shouldn't. But my goodness that picture is awesome.

5.) Mark Ingram is running well and looking physical. I literally scrunched my face and almost typed a question mark there because it doesn't feel right. But it's important to note: when the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 they had a dominant run game. Getting Darren Sproles back would be huge, but having Ingram and Pierre Thomas rush the ball effectively will be critical to their success.

6.) The NFL has to figure out a way to get things right with the hits on quarterbacks. Maybe it's implementing replay or maybe it's something else. But the hit on Matt Ryan from Akiem Hicks didn't draw a flag even though it was clearly a blow to the head AND a facemask. It's not even an NFL thing, though, because whiffing on that call by the refs is embarrassing. It was obvious to everyone. And I don't know the exact solution, but there's no question something like that should be flagged and penalized, even if it requires someone using replay or someone challenging it.

7.) Tim Lelito wasn't even close to perfect but he was probably better than most people expected while relieving Jahri Evans. The dropoff and the pressure it creates on Brees is telling though.

8.) Cameron Jordan is an absolute stud. He's a first-round pick so that's not shocking. But it's crazy to think the difference between how he looks in Steve Spagnuolo's defense and how he looks as a 3-4 defensive end in Rob Ryan's system. He might still be the Saints MVP, despite all that Brees and Graham do.

9.) Brees jumped up to No. 5 on the all-time passing yardage list. Everyone knows he's one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but in an era dominated by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (who isn't above Brees ...) sometimes the Saints quarterback gets lost in the chatter. He shouldn't.

10.) Jimmy Graham is an unstoppable human being. He produced his sixth 100-yard game this season, which is a record for a tight end. And there's plenty of games left. You could even call him a ... "freak child"?

"He's like one of those freak childs that doesn't know his own strength," Brees said of Graham's dunk that broke the Georgia Dome goalpost.

TeamGradeAnalysis
Saints 17, Falcons 13
BDare I say a gritty win for the Saints on the road against a divisional opponent? (I dare, I dare.) They had to have it and they figured out how to make the victory happen even if it wasn't pretty and didn't involve a lot of points. Doing that without Jahri Evans and Darren Sproles is impressive. This has no bearing on their long-term prospects.
B-Good job, good effort for the Falcons. At 2-8 they were going to be hard-pressed to pick up a win even at home. They did their best to stick with the Saints. The reality is they were overmatched before the game even kicked off.

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