NEW ORLEANS - The walls inside the steamy Atlanta Falcons locker room reverberated from the noise loud speakers and happy fans at the Louisiana Superdome on Sunday.
Inside, the tone was somber. Again. They mumbled the same answers to the same questions that comes with being a habitual loser. The celebration on the other side of the locker room walls only made the numbing reality of their 23-7 loss to the playoff-bound Saints more difficult to accept.
The losing streak for the Falcons now is seven games and 11 of the past 12. The overall record is 3-12. A top-five draft pick is becoming a certainty, if not a formality.
"We have to find players who want to play," running back Jamal Anderson said. "We've got to get us some more players (for next year)."
So far, the experiments for the future have not provided any answers, much less hope. Rookie quarterback Doug Johnson struggled to the point where he was benched at halftime in favor of 35-year-old Chris Chandler. In two starts, Johnson has thrown three interceptions - including two returned for touchdowns - and lost two fumbles.
"He's young," Anderson said. "And he ain't getting no help."
Johnson was 5-for-10 for 45 yards in the first half. Chandler played the second half and was 4-for-10 for 81 yards.
"I thought it was the best chance for us to win the game," coach Dan Reeves said of the switch. "I thought Chris did a good job and gave us a spark. We just turned it over down there (in the red zone)."
The Saints (10-5) needed a victory to virtually assure themselves of their first playoff appearance since 1992. They did that despite some first-half blunders. Running back Terry Allen fumbled at the goal line in the first quarter and offensive tackle Daryl Terrell dropped an easy touchdown pass.
Doug Brien kicked 20- and 46-yard field goals in the first half, but the Saints' only touchdown came on a 31-yard interception return by Sammy Knight with 12:30 remaining before the half.
The 13-0 lead got tested on the first play of the second half when Darrick Vaughn raced 88 yards for his third kickoff return for a touchdown this year. But like so many other times this year, the Atlanta offense had nothing to offer.
It finished with a season-low 163 total yards and three turnovers, including a fumble by Anderson at the Saints 17 and an interception thrown by Chandler in the New Orleans end zone - both in the third quarter as the Falcons tried to rally.
"They deserved to win," Reeves said. "We made the same kind of mistakes we've made all year. They made the plays; we didn't. So the best team won, no question about it."
Atlanta again will go through the motions Sunday inside the Georgia Dome against Kansas City. After that, the off-season process of finding help will start. The wish list is long. More than anything else, the team apparently needs a new focus.
"(Sometimes) you don't see it until you step back and look at it," Chandler said after missing one full game and a portion of two other games while the Falcons start their evaluation of Johnson. "We need to make a conscious effort to go out there and have fun. Not playing was very humbling. But it gives you a chance to see things from a different perspective."
No matter how you viewed Atlanta's effort Sunday, the deficiencies are plentiful. The offensive line allowed five more sacks to push the season total to 58, and it had trouble establishing running lanes for Anderson, who had 53 yards on 18 carries.
Another of the experiments for the future didn't help. Calvin Collins, a three-year starter, was benched in favor of rookie Wes Shivers, who started the season on the team's practice squad.
With Shivers, Atlanta had a rookie (Shivers) at left guard, a second-year player (Todd McClure) at center and a rookie (Travis Claridge) at right guard.
The defense played hard to keep the game close, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. But the lack of a formidable pass rush allowed Aaron Brooks time to complete 24-of-35 passes for 285 yards.
"No pass rush, that's not anything new," cornerback Ray Buchanan said. "We haven't been able to get to the quarterback all year."
Terry Allen, who was unemployed a month ago, rushed for 82 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Allen was signed after Ricky Williams broke his ankle Nov. 12.
"We're just not getting any results," said linebacker Henri Crockett, who like starters Bob Whitfield, an offensive tackle, and Buchanan, will be a free agent as soon as the season comes to a merciful end Sunday. "We're working hard and we're doing the job 85 percent of the time. It's that other 15 percent that's killing us.
"It hurts when you lose to guys you truly feel aren't better than you. That hurts more than you can know."
The outside celebration that rocked the losers' locker room afterward added a fitting exclamation point to Atlanta's seventh consecutive loss. And perhaps the entire season.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org
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