Final

Saints 17

(11-4, 6-2 away)

Falcons 14

(12-3, 6-1 home)

Coverage: ESPN

8:30 PM ET, December 27, 2010

Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA 

1 2 3 4 T
NO 3 7 0 717
ATL 0 7 0 714

Top Performers

Passing: D. Brees (NO) - 302 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT

Rushing: P. Thomas (NO) - 19 CAR, 63 YDS, 1 TD

Receiving: R. Meachem (NO) - 10 REC, 101 YDS

Drew Brees' late TD pass clinches postseason berth for Saints

Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints showed the high-flying Atlanta Falcons they're not ready to give up their crown just yet.

That's right, Who Dat going back to the playoffs: the reigning Super Bowl champs.

Facing a team that had won eight in a row and was poised to lock up the division title and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, New Orleans rallied for a 17-14 victory over the Falcons on Monday night to clinch a return to the postseason.

Atlanta (12-3) couldn't take advantage of the national stage to silence all those skeptics who wondered whether the team with the NFC's best record is really its best team.

Despite throwing a pair of costly fourth-quarter interceptions, Brees came through when it counted. The reigning Super Bowl MVP led a 90-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to rookie Jimmy Graham with 3:24 remaining. The Saints (11-4) sent a clear message to a team they might see again in January.

"It feels good," Brees said. "You just want to punch your ticket to the big show, and we've done that. Obviously Carolina needs to beat Atlanta next week so we can get that 1-seed."

The Saints proved that Atlanta is not invincible, even playing at the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons had a 19-3 record in Mike Smith's three years as coach.

"We don't want to feel this way the rest of the season," said Matt Ryan, who lost at home for only the second time as the Falcons' starting quarterback. "We're going to work hard to make sure we don't."

The loss doesn't ruin Atlanta's two main goals. The Falcons can still wrap up their first division crown since 2004 and home field through the NFC playoffs by knocking off two-win Carolina at home in the final week of the season.

But this one stung.

Brees completed six straight passes on a 13-play drive that won it, making up for an ill-advised attempt to flip a backhanded pass to escape heavy pressure. The throw was picked off by Chauncey Davis and returned 26 yards for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth -- giving the Falcons their first lead all night.

It didn't last, even after Brees was picked off again on a brilliant play by defensive end John Abraham, who batted the ball high in the air, then grabbed it himself.

"That's part of it," Brees said. "It's the ebb and flow of the game. Sometimes you have a clean pocket. Sometimes they're getting after you.

"In the end, we found a way to win."

After Abraham's interception, the Saints held the Falcons just past midfield, then got the ball back at their own 10. The first two plays lost a yard, but Brees connected with Lance Moore on an 18-yard pass to keep the drive going.

Brees kept on completing passes, five more in a row to lead the Saints down the field. On third-and-3 at the 6, he flicked a quick pass to Graham, slanting over the middle. The rookie got a step on William Moore and Brees delivered the ball just out of the reach of Sean Weatherspoon for the touchdown.

Graham, who also played basketball at Miami, dunked it over the goalposts to celebrate.

The Saints shut down Michael Turner, who ran for just 48 yards on 17 carries, and Ryan's two favorite receivers: Roddy White (three catches, 43 yards) and Tony Gonzalez (two receptions, 12 yards).

New Orleans especially enjoyed getting the best of White, who stirred up hard feelings last week with a series of inflammatory tweets, including one that referred to Hurricane Katrina.

"We didn't execute. We didn't do anything we needed to do," White said. "Our defense played well. They got those turnovers. They got us good field position, and we just didn't get the job done."

Even though Brees made two huge mistakes, the Falcons were lamenting all the times he got away with a dip here, a step there.

"We can't keep getting close," Abraham said. "It's not enough, especially with a guy like [Brees]. He's not going to just go down. If you get close like that, he's still looking at his receivers. 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."

All around, the Falcons didn't play their typically clean game.

An errant snap by Todd McClure out of the shotgun was recovered by New Orleans, setting up Thomas' 2-yard touchdown run that gave the Saints a 10-0 lead and breaking Atlanta's streak of seven straight games without a fumble.

Ryan connected with White on a 7-yard touchdown pass that made it 10-7 at halftime, but Atlanta squandered another chance when Turner fumbled the ball away on second-and-goal at the New Orleans 1. It was Turner's first fumble of the season.

Brees completed 35 of 49 passes for 302 yards, easily winning the duel with Ryan (15-of-29 for 148 yards) on a night when both teams struggled to run the ball effectively.

But Brees left the door open for the Falcons twice.

Trying to avoid a sack, he got away with a flip back to Thomas in the third quarter. The move backfired when Brees tried it again in the fourth.

With Jonathan Babineaux bearing down on him, Brees attempted to backhand a pass to a receiver standing at least 15 yards away. Bad move. The ball fluttered right into the arms of the 271-pound Davis, who rumbled the other way for his first career touchdown with 14:14 remaining.

After the ensuing kickoff, Brees drove the Saints right down the field, appearing to put them ahead with a 25-yard strike over the middle to Marques Colston. But the play had been whistled dead because of a false start by Jermon Bushrod, wiping out the score.

Then, on the next play, Brees made another huge mistake. Or, it might be more appropriate to say, Abraham pulled off a tremendous play.

The 32-year-old defensive end rushed in on Brees untouched and swatted the ball up in the air when the quarterback tried to hurriedly throw it away. It came down right in Abraham's arms for his first career interception.

Despite the miscues, the Saints were the ones celebrating at the end. A few of them even trotted back on the field after it was over, whooping it up and posing for pictures on the Falcons' logo at midfield.

"We've got to take a long look at ourselves," Abraham said.

Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press

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Team Stat Comparison

 
NO
ATL
1st Downs2314
Passing 1st downs
178
Rushing 1st downs
62
1st downs from Penalties
04
3rd down efficiency
8-173-12
4th down efficiency
0-00-0
Total Plays7452
Total Yards368215
Yards per play5.04.1
Total Drives1312
Passing296140
Comp - Att
35-4915-29
Yards per pass
6.04.8
Interceptions thrown
20
Sacks - Yards Lost
1-61-8
Rushing7275
Rushing Attempts
2422
Yards per rush
3.03.4
Red Zone (Made-Att)2-21-2
Penalties8-921-10
Turnovers22
Fumbles lost
02
Interceptions thrown
20
Defensive / Special Teams TDs01
Possession36:3523:25

Passing Leaders

NOC/ATTYDSAVGTDINTSACKS
Brees35/493026.2121-6
ATLC/ATTYDSAVGTDINTSACKS
Ryan15/291485.1101-8

Rushing Leaders

NOCARYDSAVGTDLG
Thomas19633.3116
Henderson199.009
ATLCARYDSAVGTDLG
Turner17482.8027
Ryan4266.5020

Receiving Leaders

NORECYDSAVGTDLGTGTS
Meachem1010110.102513
Moore44812.00187
ATLRECYDSAVGTDLGTGTS
White34314.31185
Jenkins5408.00169

Scoring Summary

FIRST QUARTERNOATL
noFG01:02Garrett Hartley 52 Yd 30
SECOND QUARTERNOATL
noTD11:18Pierre Thomas 2 Yd Run (Garrett Hartley Kick) 100
atlTD07:28Roddy White 7 Yd Pass From Matt Ryan (Matt Bryant Kick) 107
FOURTH QUARTERNOATL
atlTD14:14Chauncey Davis 26 Yd Interception Return (Matt Bryant Kick) 1014
noTD03:24Jimmy Graham 6 Yd Pass From Drew Brees (Garrett Hartley Kick) 1714

Research Notes

The Falcons' Matt Ryan struggled Monday night against the Saints when he tried to throw the ball more than 10 yards downfield, in contrast to their Week 3 meeting in New Orleans. Ryan was 4-for-7 with two touchdown passes on passes more than 10 yards in the Falcons' overtime win in Week 3. Ryan was 4-of-14 in the loss Monday night, including three defended passes.
  [+]
The Falcons entered Week 16 ranked fifth in the league in sacks (20) and tied for first in tackles for loss on non-quarterbacks (3.5) by defensive linemen when rushing four or fewer. But after Monday's performance they can add pass coverage to their resumes. Defensive ends Chauncey Davis and John Abraham intercepted passes on consecutive Saints drives, marking the first time this season multiple passes have been picked off by linemen in the same game.
  [+]
The Falcons abandoned the defensive strategy they employed for most of the game to keep Drew Brees in check (send extra pass rushers, blitz DBs and use their base 4-3 defense) on what proved to be the Saints' game-winning touchdown drive. Brees completed 7-of-8 for 72 yards on the drive against a more passive Falcons defense. The Falcons didn't bring added pass pressure at all on the go-ahead drive, something they had done consistently leading up to that point. Brees' only incompletion on the go-ahead drive was a drop by Marques Colston.
  [+]
Drew Brees: 20th INT He joins Eli Manning as the two quarterbacks this season with 30 or more touchdowns and 20 or more interceptions. Prior to this year, that hadn't happened in the NFL since Brett Favre did it for the 2003 Packers.

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