The first thing we have to understand is that to a nation of fans, Drew Brees and his team are infallible.
In Atlanta, we sit alone with our loathing of Brees' team. We hate them in football terms, like a rival should. We hate them even though that sentiment is ferociously unpopular, and after Monday night, slowly becoming forbidden.
It's taboo to hate the Saints largely because most people never knew anyone ever had hated them in the first place. TV networks and the national media ignored the Falcons-Saints rivalry for four decades (granted, quality football also ignored this rivalry back then).
So when in 2009 the media saw fit to fuse a cultural redemption narrative to New Orleans' Super Bowl title - led by the inarguably charming Brees - anyone whose heart couldn't instantly warm was considered an enemy of football and America in general. Pundits unaware of pro football south of St. Louis are perplexed that anyone wouldn't shed a tear for these lovable "Who Dats" and their quirky culture.
"That's just who they are," the Falcons player said. "We'll see them down the road. We won't forget any of it."
Nor should they. The Falcons defense was absolutely embarrassed by their archrival on national television, again. And this time it came just two weeks before both teams enter the playoffs, possibly facing each other right back in the Superdome. Atlanta's defense failed to stop the New Orleans offense from the very first drive, and took a gigantic leap back as an organization scrambling to build a Super Bowl contender.
And like any rivalry, the frustration goes a lot further back than this season. From Steve Gleason's punt block the night New Orleans returned to the Superdome in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, the Saints have made it a point of embarrassing the Falcons on their road to rebirth. They're now 5-0 versus Atlanta in primetime games post-Katrina.
But the Saints, their burgeoning national bandwagon of fans and an entranced media would all point to the obvious - Atlanta can do something about that on the field to shut everyone up, a sentiment any logical reader (and Falcon fan) wants to scream at Prisco's dialogue with the maligned Atlanta defensive players Brees torched:
Payton said he talked to Smith about the decision after the game, and also addressed some of the Falcons players about why he went for the record with the score what it was that late in the game.
The word I got out of the Falcons locker room was the only player he talked to about it was quarterback Matt Ryan.
"He didn't talk to me," Falcons corner Dunta Robinson said.
"I'm with Dunta," safety William Moore said.
A handful of other defensive players said they had no contact with Payton either.
"We weren't trying to run up the score or anything," Brees said,
Maybe not, but the Falcons sure didn't like it.
In defense of Payton, why the hell should he have to massage the egos of a humiliated Atlanta secondary? Moore dropped two would-be interceptions from Brees that, in tandem, could've cost the Saints the game and Brees the record. Robinson was routinely beaten in coverage, including on New Orleans' first offensive play of the night, a 38-yard pass from Brees to Lance Moore. At one point the Saints were eight for eight on third down conversions (they finished 10-of-13 on the night).
If they've any aspirations of postseason success this year, everything about Monday Night should stew in the Falcons' locker room for weeks to come. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the opposite sideline was pissed off because Payton and company decided to pad the stat sheet at their expense. In terms of a media storyline, normally such bad blood between division rivals is celebrated and overblown to hype future grudge matches - like, say, the potential Round 3 Wild Card game in two weeks.
Instead, the Falcons organization is being lambasted for acting like sore losers in the midst of a gushing, shamelessly infatuated celebration of Brees. Take for instance, this particularly acrimonious condemnation by NESN's Michael Hurley:
The Falcons -- at least that one, unidentified player -- continued losing after the game, too, and it's that type of attitude that will no doubt fuel them to another one-and-done showing in the playoffs this January. Let's just hope it's at the Superdome. It'll give the Falcons something else they'll never forget.
Yikes. Closer to the Superdome, Emmanuel Pepis of SportsNOLA predictably contested that because it was Drew Brees specifically, and not say, Tom Brady (more on that in a second), the team's actions were allowable:
Think about this. In sports (fairly or unfairly), when there's a hot topic about what transpires on or off a playing field, we often look at who did it. In this case, one of the nicest guys around by all accounts was perceived to have run up the score. Truthfully, that's partly why [Brees] is getting a pass today. If it was Tom Brady, the feeling nationwide wouldn't be the same.
Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune takes the inverted argument that anyone criticizing the move is creating hype over "much ado about nothing," yet touts Payton for capitalizing on a "big moment" in a "proper setting," i.e. something inherently newsworthy and meriting discussion.
CBS' Gregg Doyel, the internet's resident "angry short guy overcompensating in the gym," weighed in on the anonymous Falcons quote long enough to inadvertently bully the stance of his colleague, Prisco, with his trademark inordinate amount of unchecked rage:
See, the Falcons wanted pity. They wanted Payton to feel sorry for them by letting off the gas, stop playing the game, stop trying. That would have made the Falcons feel better, I guess: The sight of the Saints feeling sorry for their woebegone little defense.
So at this point, I have a question for the Falcons and their coaches: Are you guys professionals, or are you babies?
Indeed: "baby" taunts seem like a rational response to a player saying he wouldn't forget getting scored on and embarrassed.
Under Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff, today's Atlanta Falcons are groomed to be nonreactive and known to sidestep any kind of controversy, a bizarro mirror of their franchise history (June Jones, Eugene Robinson, Bobby Petrino, Michael Vick, etc., etc...) To that end, there really is no outrage among the Falcons about Brees' breaking the record. As the game ended, ESPN cameras captured Atlanta quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Chris Redman running up to congratulate Brees, as well as on-field nemesis Brent Grimes. Head coach Mike Smith was tactfully respectful in acknowledging Brees' feat on the podium post-game.
The Falcons showed good manners and bit their tongues, so why exactly are they not allowed to get mad behind closed doors about getting beat badly, and playing the cuckold for a rival's sideshow record breaking ceremony on national television?
Jason Cole of Yahoo accurately navigated the narrow straits of Saint-sationalism by acknowledging Brees' record-breaking moment and the All-Pro's oft-publicized impeccable character while still calling out the Saints for the blatantly obvious - with a win squarely in hand, they ran up the score for the sole purpose of making history:
This rivalry has featured its share of ugly moments, such as last year in Atlanta after the Saints beat the Falcons. Approximately a dozen New Orleans players returned to the field and pretended to urinate on the Georgia Dome field. Early in this game, Saints running back Pierre Thomas pulled a Christmas bow out of his uniform pants after scoring a touchdown, put it on the ball and handed it to a fan in the stands. Payton called that move "uncharacteristic."
Likewise, Brees said, "I hope Mike Smith knows that. We weren’t trying to run up the score or anything."
Maybe so and Brees is one of the classiest guys in the NFL. He was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2010 for leading the Saints to the Super Bowl victory and for his charity work in New Orleans. But youcan’t say that you’re not trying to run up the score when you actually are running up the score.
It's unseemly to prattle about media conspiracy theories on behalf of team that's been steadily outplayed by the accused. There's no rationalizing Atlanta's frequent failures to ascend to level of a Green Bay or New England or (and yes, most importantly) New Orleans in terms of quality and consistency.
But it's a little ironic, at least to those alone in our contempt for this black and gold fairy tale, that a kiss ass choir of national media and a legion of fans are so doe-eyed over Brees that they failed to give Monday night any shred of perspective: From the stoppage of play to the sideline photos (no simulated urinating this time, so there's a sign of progress), no one managed to mention that, with a week to play, a quarterback named Tom Brady is a mere 190 yards away from Marino's record. Not to mention Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the defending World Champions, is also in striking distance.
It's doubtful that even Brady would receive the same kind of ballyhoo if he throws for 200 yards against the Dolphins on Sunday, or the go-ahead to chase the record by his head coach if the Pats were comfortably ahead with little time remaining and playoff positioning locked up.
But hey, that's the perk of being Jesus Christ, and you can't disagree with that. Literally. You can't.