Sean Payton said he regretted making a choke gesture toward Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.
In fact, the Saints coach admitted he lost is composure when the teams played on Dec. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Listen, the mistake I made that night was letting my emotions get the best of me,” Payton said during a conference call with the Atlanta media on Wednesday in advance of a rematch Sunday. “It’s the same thing that we talk about with our players all of the time. It wasn’t good and I felt like as that game went on, it even affected me in calling plays. I’ve got to better that way. It was frustrating from some of the officiating. But you learn even when you’ve been in this thing as long as I have. It’s something that you regret and you look back on ‘what are you doing?’ So, I think that’s the thing that bugged me for the better part of the week.”
The Falcons play at the Saints on Sunday in a key NFC South game between the rivals.
Payton made the gesture as a likely reference to the Falcons’ late-game collapse in losing Super Bowl LI. Freeman was returning from an out-of-bounds, no-game run to the Saints sideline with 12:40 remaining in the Falcons’ 20-17 win. Video showed Payton grasp his right hand to his neck and twice yell the word choke.
Freeman holds no ill feelings.
“Like I said two weeks ago, it was a competitors’ moment,” Freeman said Wednesday. “I talk trash. He talks trash. Players talk trash. Coaches talk trash. This is what we’re in it for, to compete. At the end of the day, it’s all fun, it’s all love. We all understand, everybody in the situation. We understand each other because we go through the same things, so I don’t take it as disrespect at all.”
Following the game, Payton said “I don’t remember that” when asked about the incident.
Freeman saw the gesture. Following the game, he said “That man don’t know nothing about choking. He ain’t from where I’m from. He’s a good competitor so the competing probably came out. But you don’t let that bother you. He don’t know nothing about choking.”
The NFL did not fine Payton for the gesture. He was fined $10,000 for entering the field of play to argue with officials.
“Just knowing that as a head coach you’re always talking about being composed,” Payton added Wednesday. “I felt like at that point in the game I wasn’t.
“Listen, I’ve got great respect for him, not only as a player, but also for Coach (Dan) Quinn and those guys. It’s a rivalry game, but I would say this, it becomes a better rivalry game when the two teams are playing for something.
“Look, when you look in the divisions and the way they are made up now, it’s been a while since a game between Atlanta and New Orleans meant something from a division standpoint, playoff standpoint. It might have been Carolina and Atlanta the last couple of years, but it kind of moves.
“When I first got here it was Tampa Bay that every one was trying to catch. I think that’s what adds to a game like this coming weekend. But listen, I’ve got a ton of respect for him and the competitor that he is. Those guys that we line up with, they are in our division, they are rivals and yet, there is a great deal of respect amongst the players.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com