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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Gutsy call or not, Smith keeps Falcons from a big win


Falcons players are covering for Mike Smith, but he's at fault for them losing in OT to the Saints. (Getty Images)  
Falcons players are covering for Mike Smith, but he's at fault for them losing in OT to the Saints. (Getty Images)  

ATLANTA -- Let me get it out there right at the top of this column: There is no way as a coach that I would go for it from my own 29 with the game tied in overtime -- no matter who was on the other side of the field.

But Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made that exact decision Sunday when his team faced a fourth-and-inches from its own 29 against the New Orleans Saints. When the play was stuffed and the Saints turned the field position into a 26-23 victory thanks to a 26-yard field goal by John Kasay, the door to criticism wasn't cracked inches open, but rather as wide as it could be.

As one Falcons player termed it, "Fourth-and-a-Fingernail" is about to take on a life of its own.

You have to give credit to Smith for the way he handled the post-game, taking full blame, not once challenging a questioner or whispering an answer in Belichick-ian style. It was his decision and he said he'd make it again.

More importantly perhaps: It was a decision his players backed.

"It was a great call, a gutsy call", Falcons corner Dunta Robinson said.

Smith and his players made a convincing case as to why they went for it. Just not convincing enough for me.

"If you can't get six inches, you don't deserve to win," Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo said.

The Falcons rallied to tie the game on the last play of regulation when Matt Bryant banged home a 27-yard field goal to cap a 13-play, 85-yard drive that helped the Falcons rally from 10 down in the final five minutes. But all that euphoria and a chance to take over first place in the NFC South went away on the team's second possession of overtime. On the first, Atlanta went three-and-out, which New Orleans did on it first overtime possession.

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That set up the decision. It appeared Atlanta made the first down on third down when fullback Mike Cox was able to push the ball past the 30-yard line after taking a short pass on third down. But a review overturned the decision because it was ruled Cox lost the ball before he got to the 30.

That set up fourth-and-inches -- maybe four inches. Smith decided at first to send on the punt team. But then changed his mind.

"Go for it," players yelled on the sidelines. "Go for it."

Smith was already considering it. He and his staff had talked about this exact type of situation on Saturday. A detail-freak, which is one of his strong points, Smith and his staff talked about possible plays to run if they wanted to avoid giving the ball back to Drew Brees and the offense.

That's because two times, once at home and once here, Brees drove the Saints to game-winning scores against Smith's Falcons.

"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 game," Smith said. "We never saw it again, and they ended up winning the game. That was the decision-making process that I went through. "

So Smith called the punt team back, the Saints called time out, and then the play and formation were changed. The play was a power play to the left to Michael Turner. It didn't gain an inch. Turner ran into a loaded-up box and the Saints had a first down at the Atlanta 29.

"I knew they were going to bring the house," Turner said. "I don't know if they were expecting power or quarterback sneak. I knew they were going to bring the house. It happened so fast. I was spinning off one guy, just trying to get that inch, and there were bodies everywhere."

Why not a sneak? The Falcons aren't a big sneak team, but some players wondered the same thing.

"Maybe if we had done that, we'd have got the fist down," Clabo said. "I don't know. It was the right call. It was the thing to do. He showed a lot of faith in us. I'm just disappointed we let him down."

Brees threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns in the game. But the Falcons kept the Saints out of the end zone for almost the entire second half. And they did stop them in overtime.

Here's another thing about going for it that gets lost in the scrutiny: Even if they made it, the Falcons still had to go 35-40 more yards to get into scoring range. Was it worth the risk?

There is no more stand-up coach in the NFL than Smith. Maybe that's why his players were so staunch in their support of his decision. Smith, some players said, even apologized to them after the game.

We might have had a hint of this coming when Smith decided to go with an onside kick after his team cut the lead to 23-20 with 4:13 left. The Saints recovered and seemed to be moving to a field goal, but a holding penalty negated Kasay's field goal and they had to punt, setting up Ryan's game-tying drive and Fourth-and-a-Fingernail.

"Look, it takes some steel, you know, to make that call," Brees said.

No one should ever question Smith's aggressiveness. And unlike when Bill Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 against the Colts a few years back, Smith owned it and his players backed him 100-percent.

"It was something I take full responsibility for," Smith said. "It's my decision and my decision only."

Those inches mean the Saints head to their bye week at 7-3 and in command of the division. The Falcons have to regroup against the Titans next week. They play at New Orleans on Christmas weekend.

You better believe that if the situation comes up again, Smith will once again turn to his offense to get four inches.

"If you get it, it's the greatest call ever," Robinson said. "If you don't, it's the worst call. You just have to make sure you can live with the things that are said at the end of the day. We can live with it."

Do they have any choice? When they look down at their fingernails, they will be reminded of it the rest of the season.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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