Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Atlanta Falcon's Michael Turner (33) gets tackled by New Orleans Saints' Jo-Lonn Dunbar (56) during Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA — A disconsolate Mike Smith watched the chip-shot field goal sail through the uprights, then walked slowly across the field, his head down, to shake hands with the other coach.
Smith knew this loss was on him.
John Kasay kicked a 26-yard field goal in overtime after the Atlanta coach decided to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory Sunday, a decision that backfired horribly and handed the New Orleans Saints a 26-23 victory over the Falcons.
"I know it will be scrutinized all week long," Smith said. "I want everybody to understand I take full responsibility."
New Orleans (7-3) took control of the NFC South race, snapping Atlanta's three-game winning streak. But this one will be long remembered for Smith's gutsy and ill-fated call, especially if this loss comes back to cost the defending division champion Falcons a return to the playoffs.
Atlanta (5-4) rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, tying it on Matt Bryant's 27-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.
In overtime, Atlanta appeared to pick up a first down on a pass to Mike Cox, but he was ruled just short after referee Terry McAuley looked at the replay. Then, stunningly, Smith decided to go for it on fourth down from his own 29.
Michael Turner was stuffed.
"We were going to be aggressive in all that we did," Smith said. "Unfortunately, it did not work out."
After each offense went three-and-out on its first possession of overtime, Atlanta faced third-and-1 from the 29. Matt Ryan flipped a pass to Cox, the backup fullback, who was met short of the 30 but stretched out the ball with his right arm, appearing to get it across the line. It was initially ruled a first down, but the replay showed he was bobbling the ball as he was going down along the sideline, and the spot was moved back.
The Falcons initially sent on the punting team, then called timeout. After thinking it over, Smith decided to go for it, figuring his team could pick up the foot or so needed to keep the drive going.
Boy, did that turn out to be a mistake.
Ryan handed off to Turner, but the bruising runner never had a chance. He was swarmed by a pile of defenders and actually lost a couple of feet, and the jubilant Saints took over. Four plays later, Kasay won it with his fourth field goal of the game.
"I just saw a guy in my face as soon as I got the ball," Turner said. "I would like to have it back. I would love to be in that situation again."
New Orleans coach Sean Payton coached the game on crutches in his return to the sideline after a collision with one of his players left him with a broken left leg and severe knee injuries nearly a month ago.
"I just felt like this was an important game," Payton said. "That presence is important. I talked to the doctors this morning."
Drew Brees went 30 of 43 for 322 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. Marques Colston had eight catches for 113 yards. The Saints were certainly glad to have their coach among them, not sending down calls from the booth.
"It was great having him, just his presence," Brees said. "He couldn't wait to get back down there. He has his hands in everything."
Ryan threw a staggering 52 passes, completing 29 for 351 yards and two touchdowns. Harry Douglas became his favorite receiver after rookie Julio Jones left the game, sidelined again by an ailing hamstring. Douglas finished with eight receptions for 133 yards.
Turner rushed for 96 yards, but couldn't get the one yard that mattered most.
"We've just got to get a couple inches. Make that play and move on," center Todd McClure groaned. "I like the fact our coach has faith in us to make the play."
Brees was impressed by Smith's courage, if nothing else.
"It takes some steel and you-know-what to make that call," the quarterback said. "This one play is the game."
In regulation, Atlanta was down to its last chance, facing fourth-and-3 at the New Orleans 45 with about 4½ minutes remaining. Ryan kept the drive going by hitting Roddy White on a 6-yard completion, then struck quickly with two more passes to make a game of it. A 19-yarder to White was followed by a 20-yard touchdown to Tony Gonzalez with 4:13 to go, bringing the Falcons to 23-20.
With only one timeout remaining, the Falcons felt compelled to try an onside kick. It didn't work.
The Saints moved into position to give Kasay a 45-yard try. He drilled the kick right down the middle, but Jimmy Graham was called for holding and New Orleans decided to back up the Falcons with a punt.
After Eric Weems made a fair catch at the Atlanta 5, the Falcons put together a clutch drive that forced OT. Ryan hooked up three times with Douglas on completions totaling 66 yards, and Atlanta actually had plenty of time to take three shots at the end zone for a winning touchdown.
They caught a break on Ryan's first throw over the middle, which was right in the hands of New Orleans safety Roman Harper. He couldn't hang on. Ryan then looked for White, but Jabari Greer got a hand on the ball to knock it away. After one more incompletion, Bryant trotted on to make his third field goal.
Notes: Brees extended his NFL record with a 30th straight game completing at least 20 passes. ... Bryant missed a 41-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, snapping his franchise-record streak of 30 in a row over two seasons. ... The Saints rushed for just 41 yards on 16 carries.