New Orleans tied for final NFC postseason berth

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- New Orleans got a break when the Atlanta Falcons decided to rest Michael Vick and his aching shoulder.

And the Saints took advantage with a much-needed victory.

Aaron Brooks threw for a touchdown and ran for another and
Michael Lewis returned a kickoff for a score Sunday to lead the Saints to a 26-13 victory that keeps them in playoff contention.

Brooks, Vick's cousin, completed 12-of-24 passes for 227 yards. With New Orleans trailing 6-5 in the second quarter, Brooks scored the go-ahead touchdown after New Orleans pulled the kicking team on fourth down and sent the offense back in. His 1-yard leap put the Saints up 12-6 and they never trailed again.

"It was a disappointing performance for our football team, and that means everyone who got on the plane and came down here," Atlanta coach Jim Mora said.

Vick, unbeaten in three starts against New Orleans, was on the sideline in shorts and T-shirt, inactive for the game.

"I told Jim thanks after the game," Saints coach Jim Haslett joked about not facing Vick. "He's a great football player. There's a reason they pay him all that money. But I thought our guys were up to the challenge if Michael would have played."

It was the third straight victory for New Orleans (7-8), its first three-game winning streak since 2002.

Lewis' 96-yard kickoff return with 5:32 left in the third quarter put the Saints up 26-13.

"It was even bigger because he called it at halftime," Saints center LeCharles Bentley said of Lewis' run. "He said, 'Get ready, I'm going to take one to the house.'"

The Falcons (11-4) were also without and two other key offensive weapons -- tight end Alge Crumpler and running back T.J. Duckett.

Vick and Crumpler had terrorized the Saints in recent meetings. Vick averaged 249 yards total offense -- 178 passing, 71 rushing -- while passing for four touchdowns and running for four. Crumpler had 103 yards receiving, including the 20-yard, game-winning touchdown in Atlanta's 24-21 victory over New Orleans last month.

The Falcons could afford to rest the trio. Atlanta had already clinched the division title and last week wrapped up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

Vick was replaced by rookie quarterback Matt Schaub, who completed 17-of-41 passes for 188 yards. He was sacked three times and intercepted twice.

Atlanta's victory over Carolina helped the resurgent Saints move into a tie with the Panthers and St. Louis Rams for the NFC's final playoff spot.

Atlanta, which led the NFL in rushing with 169.6 yards per game, had 93 yards against New Orleans. Warrick Dunn rushed for 52 yards on 18 carries.

Saints running back Deuce McAllister had 128 yards on 18 carries, making him the third player in franchise history to rush for 4,000 yards.

The Saints went up 2-0 on a first-quarter safety. John Carney made it 5-0 with a 22-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in the
first quarter.

On the first play of the second quarter, Schaub tossed the ball to Dunn, who ran 59 yards to the New Orleans 7. Jay Feely's 25-yard field goal pulled Atlanta to 5-3. Feely's second field goal, set up by an interception, gave Atlanta a 6-5 lead.

The Saints then staged an 80-yard drive with Brooks and Joe Horn connecting for 58 yards. It appeared to have stalled on the 1 and
the New Orleans kicking team came on. But as they were lining up, Haslett called a timeout. As he talked to the coaches on the sideline, Brooks, Horn, McAllister and Bentley huddled with them. Seconds later, Haslett called the kicking team off the field and sent the offense back out.

"Well, I wanted the lead with 3:20 to go and the players wanted to go for it, then the fans wanted to go," Haslett said. "So I guess I was outnumbered."

Brooks leaped over center for the TD, giving New Orleans a 12-6 edge at halftime.

The Saints stretched the lead to 19-6 on the first series of the second half on a 39-yard touchdown pass to Donte' Stallworth.

Dunn had his first big run of the game, a 16-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, to pull Atlanta within six at 19-13.

Game notes
Brooks' touchdown pass made him the first Saints QB with four straight seasons with 20 TD passes. ... Mora has 11 wins, the most in team history by a first-year head coach ... McAllister had his fourth straight 100-yard game against the Falcons ... Injuries -- umpire Jeff Rice was sandwiched between several players in the second quarter, emerging with a gash to his forehead. Rice had a large bandage applied to the injury and was back in the game several plays later. Saints safety Steve Gleason suffered a bruised lung in the third quarter and was hospitalized.

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