To kick off the second week of STAT BOX STORIES, I turned to another heated divisional rivalry in the NFL to feature in Madden NFL 12. Even though the NFC South is prone to being overlooked in favor of other divisions like the AFC East, NFC East, or AFC North, the truth remains that the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were the last two #1 seeds in the National Football Conference. Even though that top seed only resulted in a Super Bowl win for New Orleans–with the Falcons falling last year at home to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Packers–the landscape of the NFC South is certainly shifted with these two teams set to battle it out every season; with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers not far behind.
For this match-up I decided to go with the underdog and take control of the Falcons, who are one of the more disappointing teams of the 2011 NFL season so far; at least with regard to what the fanbase expected heading into the season. While Matt Ryan is still a solid professional quarterback and Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez have remained steady targets on the offense, Atlanata isn’t operating on the same level of the Saints through the halfway point of the season. I definitely expected a tough test on my hands facing down Drew Brees and his many weapons.
As is typically my luck in Madden NFL 12, I did not win the coin toss and found myself kicking off to begin the game. In truth, I prefer to kick and get the ball back to begin the second half, allowing my team to try and set the tone–or re-establish a tone–after half the game is through. Unfortunately for me, the Saints rode the legs of rookie halfback Mark Ingram to a lengthy scoring drive on their first possession of the game. In the same drive, I twice forced 3rd-and-Long conversion attempts and each time New Orleans was able to succeed at picking up the necessary yards. It was a very disheartening way to begin the game, but something to be expected from an offense as prolific as the kind that calls the Superdome home these days.
My first offensive drive was considerably less successful, resulting in a quick 3-and-out and a second Atlanta possession. After a few solid runs by Ingram, Drew Brees began to set his eyes downfield and I was able to capitalize with an interception on a ball underthrown to his gold-helmeted receiver. With time winding down in the first quarter, an inside run call for halfback Michael Turner turned into so much more thanks to some quality blocking at the line of scrimmage.
Compared to the first quarter, the first six minutes of the second were a scoring drought. Multiple short drives and punts were exchanged, and the battle of field possession was essentially a stalemate with neither team able to drive close enough to even make a meaningful field goal attempt. Matt Ryan equaled his opposite number in the dubious interception stat column, leading to a Saints possession in their own end of the field just before the two-minute warning. From there, New Orleans began a drive which finally saw quality completions up the field until I found myself running a red zone defense with halftime under a minute away. Even though I was able to force a field goal attempt, John Kasay’s short attempt was easily converted for a 10-7 lead with 45 seconds left in the second quarter. With so little time on the clock and three timeouts, I felt comfortable about my chances to at least get into position for a field goal attempt before halftime and receiving the second half kickoff.
Although I was able to cross midfield on my way to a potential tying field goal attempt, my luck soon stalled out and I was facing fourth down with only a handful of seconds left from the Saints 42-yard-line. With no chance to convert the kick, I sent my receivers streaking deep and put up the ball for rookie wide out Julio Jones. To my amazement–despite being surrounded by players from both teams–he came down with the ball and got both feet in-bounds before tumbling out the back of the end zone. The improbable Hail Mary catch gave me a 14-10 lead going into the break, and a great video replay; had my PlayStation 3 console not frozen when I was trying to save the file at the game’s conclusion!
After the excitement of the first half, the third quarter was a true chess match of field position and stalling offenses. The most impressive statistical sequence of the quarter came on back-to-back 3-and-outs where my punter Matt Bosher put punts at the New Orleans 1-yard-line and 6-yard line consecutively. Unfortunately for my defense, the beginning of the fourth quarter saw the Saints putting together a drive where they got into field goal position to bring the score to 14-13 and a single point differential.
With the ball back in hand, however, I was determined to seal the game and put myself in position to end up with a victory. With heavy doses of Michael Turner, I put together a 3-minute-plus drive culminating in a 7-yard touchdown run to put myself up by a touchdown and two-point conversion.
With a dedication to continuing to bring pressure–my Falcons defense ended the game with six sacks of Brees–I was finally able to force the Super Bowl XLIV MVP’s second interception of the day just after the two-minute warning. Though I had the ball at midfield, my offense sputtered and on fourth down I faced a 54-yard field goal attempt with 15 seconds left on the game clock. I had faith in Matt Bryant’s leg on the long attempt indoors, but unfortunately the kick came up just short of the crossbar and New Orleans had one last attempt to try and tie the game up and force overtime. As the clock rolled down to all-zeroes, Brees’ deep pass was deflected incomplete at my 3-yard-line and the game ended with a final score of 21-13.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic of this rivalry match-up was that I was able to out-gain New Orleans both on the ground and through air; I was particularly surprised at how effective my rushing game was, considering that last week I’d had some trouble achieving solid gains with Baltimore’s Ray Rice. Having Michael Turner for my ground game seemed to help consderably, and this may very well have been the first game I’ve ever played in a football video game where my rushing yards were higher than the opposing team’s passing yards. Also of note is the number of penalty yards I took–4 flags for 32–which came about as the result of a blatant Defensive Pass Interference call that was thrown when I got too aggressive tackling a receiver before the ball was even close to him. So much for that theory that pass interference never happens in video games!
Aside from the surprising Hail Mary pass for a touchdown to close the first half, this was definitely a game of ground attacks. Michael Turner’s Player of the Game honor was well-earned with 151 yards rushing, and even rookie Mark Ingram nearly reached the century mark on the ground. The quality of punting was also noteworthy enough to include in the player statistics this time around, with Matt Bosher putting three of his four punts inside New Orleans’ 20-yard-line to make each Saints possession a true battle.
A second straight 8-point victory–with the CPU getting the ball near the end zone–keeps me on my toes as a Madden NFL player, but it’s hard to argue with the final results of the two games played for STAT BOX STORIES so far. At the end of this week I’ll be posting the options to vote on for the fan choice game in Madden NFL 12’s entry in Week 3, so keep an eye on the upcoming schedule and be sure to come back here for the details on Friday morning.