FLOWERY BRANCH — John Abraham is carrying around visual proof that the Atlanta Falcons’ defense isn’t good enough.
The four-time Pro Bowl defensive end had just received a video clip of his first career interception, and Abraham picked up his cell phone to offer it as evidence Friday.
Though it was an athletic play on his part — batting the ball into the air and corralling it for the pick — Abraham advanced only 6 yards to the Atlanta 47. He was staring at an open field and the end zone when New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees tackled him.
Laying the phone down after the clip stopped, Abraham shook his head.
“I just didn’t think he was going to tackle me,” he said. “He did a great job getting me down, but I thought (the play) was the game-changer.”
Suffice it to say that Abraham isn’t too impressed with the accomplishments of Atlanta’s defense this season.
Ranking fifth in points allowed, eighth in takeaways and 12th against the run isn’t good enough. Abraham believes the Falcons aren’t putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks and don’t tackle well, tendencies that could hurt them in the playoffs.
“Losing last week really hurt,” Abraham said. “I feel like it really would’ve meant a lot for some of us to get an extra week of rest, but now we just have to come out focused and excited to play Carolina.”
A win over the Panthers (2-13) Sunday would give Atlanta (12-3) its first NFC South title in four years, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Falcons sacked Brees just once Monday, letting him slip away countless times to complete passes and extend drives.
“We let guys come free and we weren’t wrapping Brees up, but he’s a playmaker who knows how to get out of a sack and still find an open receiver downfield,” defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “Every time I got near him it seemed like he’d get the ball out and make a positive play out of it.”
New Orleans’ prolific offense gets any opponent’s full attention, but Babineaux knows Atlanta must take nothing for granted against Carolina, which ranks last in scoring, passing and total offense.
And that’s because the run defense was gouged by Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson for an average of 7.9 yards on 27 carries in the Falcons’ 21-point win over Carolina three weeks ago.
And the Panthers could have added motivation in their final game under coach John Fox. Carolina owner Jerry Richardson announced Friday that Fox will not return next season after nine years guiding Carolina.
“Those guys have pride,” Babineaux said. “The year didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to, but John Fox knows how to motivate his team. They play hard for him.”
Abraham wants the entire defense, including himself, to concentrate collectively on getting the Panthers off the field in three plays. Atlanta dipped to 23rd in third-down efficiency after the Saints converted eight of their final three chances.
On several pass plays Monday, Brees’ footwork allowed him to buy an extra second or two for completions that ultimately undid the Falcons.
Though reserve end Chauncey Davis and Abraham intercepted Brees on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions, Atlanta’s collective momentum waned after Davis’ 26-yard return gave the Falcons a four-point lead.
Abraham followed with his big play just five snaps later, but the Falcons’ offense managed just four snaps before punting. After the Saints scored the go-ahead touchdown, Curtis Lofton recovered a fumble forced by William Moore, but New Orleans challenged the call and the play was overturned.
Close, but not good enough.
“A lot of people were saying how well New Orleans played, but I just think we didn’t play as well as we could have,” Abraham said. “We just left stuff out there. You think about the fumble. You think about the sacks we missed. It was too much.”