FLOWERY BRANCH — Coach Mike Smith says the Atlanta Falcons take pride in three core principles.
Win the turnover battle. Win third downs. Win time of possession.
The Falcons did none those in Monday night's 17-14 loss to New Orleans and missed a chance to clinch the No. 1 playoff seed and win the NFC South.
They still can accomplish both of those goals with a victory Sunday against Carolina, but Smith sees a long list of problems that need correcting.
Foremost is eliminating unforced errors.
Running back Michael Turner mishandled the ball on second-and-goal at the 1. Center Todd McClure muffed a snap from a shotgun formation.
"It's very uncharacteristic of our football team this season," Smith said Tuesday. "There's no doubt about it. They unfortunately happened at the worst time, but we have to overcome those plays later in the ballgame."
Smith reminded the players and coaches that the Falcons can't take for granted that they will always achieve their core principles.
If the offense has a giveaway, the defense must get a takeaway. If the defense allows opponents to convert several third downs, the offense must respond.
That is how Atlanta (12-3) usually wins the time of possession battle, a category in which the Falcons rank fourth.
Offensively, the running game stalled. Turner broke off a 27-yard run in the second quarter, but averaged 1.3 yards on his other 16 carries.
With New Orleans stacking its line with eight or nine defenders, Turner couldn't reach the second level of the defense.
Smith gave credit to Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for executing their game plan.
"They did some things of slanting, moving their line, and it was effective," Smith said. "My hat's off to Sean and his staff. They won the ballgame last night."
Third downs in the passing attack were undermined by a Saints scheme that double-teamed tight end Tony Gonzalez and took away receiver Roddy White's deep threat by shadowing him behind cornerback Jabari Greer.
"We know who they want to get the ball to, and the main thing was that we stopped their running attack and didn't allow Turner to get going," New Orleans safety Darren Sharper said. "Once we did that, it made our jobs a lot easier.
"It forced them to start throwing the ball."
Defensively, Smith was generally pleased outside of the Saints' winning drive, which covered 90 yards in 13 plays and consumed 7:11 of the fourth quarter.
After that long drive, Atlanta couldn't sustain a drive of its own and Smith punted, giving the ball back to New Orleans with 2:44 to play.
Smith doesn't regret punting after a three-and-out possession.
"I think that's how you have to approach it, and I know it's going to be a conversation piece because it was a crucial time in the football game," he said. "But I'd do it again."
Atlanta defense wants to do things differently against Carolina.
Fatigue eventually set in against New Orleans and tackling suffered. The defense usually takes about 60 snaps a game, it took 73 against the Saints.
Players wore down and even before that, couldn't — or didn't — wrap up Drew Brees. Several times Atlanta pass rushers had open lanes to disrupt the Saints quarterback, but he often stepped calmly aside, kept his eyes on receivers and completed passes.
"He's third-and-short, he's third-and-long, we've got him right where we want him and he's completing passes for first down," right end John Abraham said. "We've got to take a long look at ourselves."
Abraham was calling for better attention to detail in meeting rooms this week as the Falcons have a lot at stake against the Panthers.
Carolina has struggled this season, but saw improvement last week from rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Abraham says Clausen has the Falcons full attention because he knows the playoffs will bring tough challenges from top-shelf quarterbacks.
"If we want to be a championship team and we're going to take advantage of the opportunities out there that we have, we've got to make them," Abraham said. "We can't keep getting close. It's not enough, especially with a guy like" Brees.