Mike Smith kept pointing toward the Atlanta Falcons' locker room and saying, hey, this loss isn't the players' fault.
He took the blame for this one.
The Falcons' coach gambled in overtime, and it cost his team the game against the New Orleans Saints. Not just any game, either.
First place in the NFC South was on the line when Smith made a call that, he can only hope, doesn't come back to bite him at the end of the season.
Fourth down. A foot or so from a first down at his own 29.
Instead of punting, Smith decided to go for it.
Michael Turner was stuffed for no gain.
Saints ball. Game over.
Four plays after that ill-fated decision, John Kasay booted a 26-yard field goal that handed the Saints a 26-23 victory Sunday, extending their division lead over the Falcons to 1 1/2 games.
"It was something that I take full responsibility for," Smith said. "It's my decision, my decision solely. At first we were going to punt the football. I had a change of heart and wanted us to go for it. I thought the ball was less than half a yard. I thought we could get it."
Instead, he watched Kasay win it for the Saints.
Head down, a disconsolate Smith walked slowly across the field to shake hands with his Saints counterpart, Sean Payton, who worked the sideline wearing shorts and leaning on a pair of crutches.
Payton returned to the field for the first time since breaking his left leg and tearing up his knee when one of his own players collided with him during a game about a month ago.
While the Saints were clearly inspired, this one will mostly be remembered for the decision by the other coach after the Falcons rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
"It takes some steel and you-know-what to make that call," New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. "This one play is the game."
Indeed it was. The Saints (7-3) escaped Atlanta with a key road victory, ending a three-game winning streak for the Falcons (5-4).
"I would just like to have it back," Turner said. "I would love to be in that situation again."
The Falcons tied it on the final play of regulation, Matt Bryant's 27-yard field goal, after driving nearly the length of the field with no time outs.
In the overtime, Atlanta appeared to pick up a first down on Matt Ryan's short pass to Mike Cox, who stretched out the ball with his right arm and appeared to get it over the 30. But a replay showed he was bobbling the ball as he was going down along the sideline, so the spot was moved back just short of the line.
Smith initially sent out his punting team, then called a timeout and changed his mind. The Saints called time, too, giving Smith a few more seconds to think about his decision.
He left the offense on the field.
"We were going to be aggressive in all that we did," Smith said. "Unfortunately, it did not work out."
At first, the Saints figured the Falcons were merely bluffing.
"We thought (a punt) was a no-brainer, that they were trying to draw us offsides," defensive end Will Smith said. "We could tell when they called timeout that they were serious. We just hunkered down when we had to."
Turner never had a chance. The bruising runner was swarmed by a pile of defenders led by Smith and 350-pound nose tackle Shaun Rogers, and the jubilant Saints took over.
"We've just got to get a couple inches. Make that play and move on," Falcons center Todd McClure groaned. "I like the fact our coach has faith in us to make the play."
Payton had planned to coach one more game from the booth, but he made the surprising decision to work on the sideline. For safety reasons, he was supposed to stand several feet away from the field, but pretty much ignored that edict from the NFL when he wanted a better look.
"I just felt like this was an important game," Payton said.
"That presence is important."
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 back among them, instead of sending down calls from upstairs as he had the last three games.
"It was great having him," Brees said. "He couldn't wait to get back down there. He has his hands in everything."
Ryan threw 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, including three catches totaling 66 yards on the tying drive.
Turner rushed for 96 yards, but couldn't get the one yard that mattered most.
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