The Falcons win the right game at the right moment

It was only one game, one of 16. Four months hence, we might look back on the doings of Sept. 7 and say they meant nothing. At the moment, though, it was way more than one game. It was the absolute right game at the absolute right time.

They didn’t just outlast their Southern nemesis. They beat New Orleans in a way that suggested the 2014 Falcons have already rendered the 4-12 of 2013 an anomaly. They spotted the Saints 13 points, trailed inside the final minute, lost the toss to begin overtime and won anyway.

“As much as you don’t want to go to overtime,” said William Moore, the safety who divested Marques Colston of the ball in OT, “it was good that it did. It shows the Falcons of this year can finish.”

There’s no such thing as a dainty Falcons-Saints game, but this might have set a new standard for September ferocity. Having fallen behind 13-0, the Falcons put together as gutty a drive as has ever been seen in the first half of any NFL opener. They drove 80 yards in 14 plays, converting three third downs (two of them third-and-long) and overriding three penalties.

Matt Ryan, who had his greatest game as a pro, scrambled twice and completed seven passes to six different receivers, and the word that sprang to mind after Roddy White scored sounded out of place for September. That word was “desperation,” and what team is desperate in Week 1, right?

Well, this team was — desperate to put 4-12 behind it. “We’d already washed that clean,” said guard Jon Asamoah, imported from Kansas City over the winter. But how scrubbed can you be if the new season begins with yet another loss to the hated Saints?

The Falcons could have gotten to 1-1 by losing to the Saints and winning in Cincinnati next week, but there’s no way that would have felt half so good. The Georgia Dome was aroar from the start, a sensory overload not lost on the new man Asamoah. “Just an awesome experience,” he said. “The crowd was buzzing from the first snap to the last snap. When the crowd is yelling when you’re on offense, you know they’re excited.”

In addition to being the right game — for the Falcons, if not their visitors — it was also a great one. The defense hemorrhaged yards (472) but limited the Saints to field goals early and no points at all when Robert McClain intercepted Drew Brees’ pass in the end zone. Even after the Saints scored two touchdowns in the final nine minutes of regulation, the D was resourceful enough to make the play that won the game.

On the second snap of OT, Brees stepped forward to find Colston for what would have been a first down had he held the ball, which he didn’t. Moore punched it loose. Linebacker Joplo Bartu scrambled to fall on it at the Saints’ 38. “I felt like I was in slow motion,” Bartu said. “I just hoped I could get there fast enough.”

Matt Bryant, whose 51-yard field at the end of the fourth quarter induced overtime, kicked a 52-yarder to win it. “We’re never going to tap out,” Bartu said, and for the team coming off 4-12 that was the most heartening part. They trailed from the game’s fifth minute through the 45th and fell behind twice in the fourth quarter. They emerged 1-0.

Victory, as the saying goes, has many fathers, but the biggest daddy here was Ryan. He completed 31-of-43 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns. He and Brees staged a delicious back-and-forth in the fourth quarter, their teams combining for 24 points over the final 8:46. A falling-to-the-left throw to Devin Hester that set up the tying field goal was surely one of Ryan’s five finest completions as a Falcon.

“He was just unreal,” said running back Steven Jackson, and there were times when it appeared Ryan was willing his team to win, which wasn’t entirely true. (Much skill was involved.) Still, there was no question that the Falcons more than matched the favored Saints in effort and efficiency. As of 1 p.m. on Sept. 7, it wasn’t a given they could do either.

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” Moore said. Then he did anyway: “This year is going to be special.”