The Falcons' bid at perfection ended Sunday as they lost a close, hard-fought road game against the hated, division rival Saints. But with the target off its back, Atlanta will push forward focusing 100% on winning in the playoffs.
Sunday's loss at New Orleans, though not entirely unexpected, was painful.
Not because it wasn't competitive or close, but rather because the Falcons could've left victorious just as easily.
A Michael Turner stuff on the goal line, followed by a failed pass on fourth and goal. Roddy White misjudging what would've been a game-winning pass. Tony Gonzalez dropping a pass, on fourth down no less.
We know the defense disappointed, but it was the uncharacteristic day for the offense that at times left me shaking my head. The Saints "defense," if you can even call them that, held true when they had to. Atlanta's did not.
Keep in mind, the Falcons are still in great shape at 8-1. Perhaps this is the wake-up call they need, too, because I'll bet all of Gonzalez's career catches that last Sunday's mistakes and flaws are fixable.
Flaw No. 1 - Tackling
The most basic, fundamental aspect of playing defense eluded the Falcons on Sunday as they helplessly watched Chris Ivory rumble 56 yards for a touchdown.
How else does a team averaging 88.4 rushing yards per game manage to total 148 yards in that same category?
The run defense has been soft for most of the season, sure, but this is normally coupled with quality pass defense. In fact, the Falcons have been one of the better teams at shutting down opposing quarterbacks this year.
Sean Weatherspoon's absence forced Akeem Dent - a solid linebacker in his own right, but still not at Weatherspoon's level in coverage - and aging veteran Mike Peterson into more action than Falcons coaches had hoped, and that certainly showed on the field.
Still, even the healthy players - notably starting safeties Thomas DeCoud and Wiilliam Moore - had sub-par days tackling Saints wide receivers and Graham especially.
Mike Smith held a practice for this issue specifically over the bye week. Maybe the team needs another.
Flaw No. 2 - Running Game
Rather, the complete lackthereof.
Michael Turner finished the day with 15 yards on 13 carries, while Jacquizz Rodgers had the marginally more respectable 29 yards on three carries.
Essentially every Falcons run was stuffed, most notably a Turner run on third-and-goal when the Falcons trailed by four with two minutes left. The offensive line got zero push, and Turner couldn't create anything from that.
It's funny, because goal line runs with Turner have been a staple of the Falcons offense since 2008, and now it has all but vanished.
Remembering back to the numerous failed fourth-and-shorts against the Giants in last year's playoff catastrophe, this could be a serious problem come postseason if the Falcons cannot fix this.
I thought the insertion of Peter Konz into the starting lineup would improve Turner's numbers, but this was obviously not the case on Sunday.
It's tough too, because offensive line play is typically not something that gets better overnight. If they are outmatched physically against a larger defensive front, chances are the Falcons will once again be forced to abandon the run.
The only solution, then, is to use Jacquizz Rodgers even more in the ground game. His phenomenal pass-catching ability, combined with a shiftier and more explosive ability carrying the ball, should continue to be a much-needed edge on the Falcons offense.
Flaw No. 3 - Pass Rush
Again, there was a complete absence of pressure on Drew Brees in this one. He had all day to throw on several occasions, and you won't beat the Saints when that happens. It's that simple.
One sack from Stephen Nicholas on a blitz was all Atlanta managed. Yes, New Orleans has one of the best offensive lines in the league, but you could still argue that the Falcons are the best team in the league.
If Atlanta wants to take down a team like the Giants or Packers in the playoffs, ramping up that pressure is an absolute must.
But remember that Sunday's loss is far from the end of the world. It is a new beginning, if you will, for a Falcons team that's just been handed a harsh reality-check.
The team can regroup, realign, and refocus on what they need to do to achieve dome-field advantage and finally surmount that media-pervasive playoff hump.