The teams are preparing for Sunday’s important NFC South rematch. Atlanta won the first game on Dec. 7.
In that game, cameras captured Payton making the gesture at Freeman after a fourth-quarter play near the Saints’ sideline. It apparently was a reference to the Falcons blowing a 25-point lead in a Super Bowl loss to New England.
Payton, who said “I don’t remember that” when asked about the gesture immediately after the game, owned up to it Wednesday during a conference call with the Atlanta media.
“Listen, the mistake I made that night was letting, obviously, my emotions get the best of me,” Payton said. “It’s the same thing we talk about with our players all the time. And it wasn’t good. I felt like, man, as that game went on, it even affected me just in calling plays. I’ve got to be better that way. It was really more a frustration from some of the officiating. But you learn, even when you’ve been in this thing as long as I have. It’s something that you regret. And you just look back on it and think, ‘What are you doing?’
“It bugged me for the better part of a week. Just know that as the head coach, you’re always talking about being composed. And I felt like, at that point in the game, I wasn’t.”
Payton apologized to Freeman via text message.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for him and the competitor he is,” Payton said. “Those guys that we line up with, they’re in our division. They’re rivals. And yet there’s a great deal of respect, I think, among the players.”
Payton was not disciplined by the league for the taunting gesture, but he was fined $10,000 for improperly entering the playing field while yelling at officials.
Freeman downplayed the exchange when asked Monday night about seeing Payton and the Saints again.
“I’ll talk to him,” Freeman told ESPN. “It ain’t no grudge. I don’t take it personal at all. He’s a competitor. He’s just a top competitor. He loves his job. He’s real passionate about it.”
The Saints (10-4) lead the NFC South, but the Falcons (9-5) can secure a playoff spot with a win over the Saints and can win the division with victories over both the Saints and Carolina Panthers (10-4) to end the season.