Revenge was served with a ribbon Sunday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as the New Orleans Saints presented Who Dat Nation with an early postseason Christmas present.
The Saints defense came up with a pair of goal line stands, and an unusual interception set up a momentum-shifting touchdown right before halftime to help lift New Orleans to a 23-13 victory before an announced 73,188.
With the win, the Saints (11-4) clinched a spot in the National Football Conference playoffs for the first time since 2013.
New Orleans sits tied atop the NFC South Division with the Carolina Panthers, who rallied in the final minute Sunday to defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints travel to Tampa Sunday. If New Orleans downs the Bucs, it would earn its first division crown since 2011.
“While I guess it feels good to clinch a spot, it’s not the ultimate the goal,” said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 239 yards and a touchdown to become just the third in National Football League history to reach 70,000 career passing yards.
“The goal is, first and foremost, to win the division, and we have an opportunity to do that next week with a win in Tampa Bay. It’s all in front of us. We control our destiny, and from here on, the games only get bigger, and the wins only get sweeter.”
Still, Sunday’s win had to be pretty sweet.
New Orleans’ victory avenged a last-quarter, Thursday night loss to the Falcons on Dec. 7. Sunday’s win also snapped the Saints’ three-game losing streak against their archrival.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak by the Falcons (9-6), loosening Atlanta’s current grasp just a bit on the second NFC wild-card spot. The Falcons host Carolina in the regular-season finale Sunday and clinch a playoff berth with a win.
“It was a good win,” New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said. “We think Atlanta’s a good football team, , so this was a very good win for us.”
Brees, who completed 21-of-28 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown with an interception, joined Peyton Manning and Brett Favre in the 70,000-yard passing club. Brees reached the milestone on a 12-yard screen pass in the first quarter to running back Mark Ingram.
“It’s an incredible honor to have played long enough to see that happen,” said Brees, who is in his 17th season, including his 12th with the Saints. “So many people are a part of that, all the guys (who) block, all the guys (who) caught them all, all the coaches (who) put together the plans to make that happen. Everybody shares in that.”
Brees also went past Sunday the 4,000-yard passing mark for the 12th time in his career.
But, New Orleans’ offense wasn’t particularly spiffy Sunday. The ground game, ranked fifth in the NFL at 135.1 yards a game, netted just 86 yards. All told, the Saints top-ranked offense (401.8 yards a game) finished with 315 yards.
But, Will Lutz knocked through all three of his field-goal attempts and New Orleans came up with a big scoring play on the ground and through the air.
The Saints defense came up huge, holding Atlanta to no points twice after the Falcons were inside the five yard line. The Saints surrendered just six points through the game’s first 57 minutes, 20 seconds, came up with a pair of timely turnovers, sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan five times, and allowed 331 yards to the NFL’s ninth-most prolific offense (366.8 yards a game).
“I thought the difference in the game was that the defense handled the short fields when it faced them,” Payton said. “We did enough on offense and in the kicking game.”
New Orleans was holding a 6-0 lead on 40-yard and 29-yard field goals by Lutz with just 1:19 left in the first half.
But, with Atlanta near midfield after Ryan found Julio Jones for 23 yards, the Falcons were facing third-and-10. Ryan put the ball in the hands of Marvin Hall on a deep crossing route. But Hall couldn’t bring the pass in, popping the ball in the air, where it fell on the backside Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
After Lattimore managed to scoop the ball into his grasp, it was ruled an interception, giving the Saints the ball back at their 36-yard line with 50 seconds left in half.
“I saw the ball pop up, but I was mad because I fell down,” Lattimore said. “I could have easily caught it off the tip.
“I felt it on the back of my leg and everybody tried to come grab it. I did a little leg curl, and it was there. I must be living right. I knew it never touched the ground because it was on the back of my leg. I haven’t seen anything like that before.”
After a rush for no gain, Brees found Alvin Kamara for 10 yards and a first down at the Saints’ 46-yard line before he and Ted Ginn teamed on a nifty 54-yard touchdown. Ginn had worked behind the single coverage of Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant, and Brees found him for the score that left the Saints up 13-0 at halftime.
“We felt like we had an opportunity there, and we took it,” Brees said. “It was a huge play, a huge momentum point in the game.”
The Falcons got on the board on Matt Bryant’s 37-yard field goal with 9:34 left in the third quarter.
The score was set up on when Brees’s pass slipped off Ginn’s fingers and into the hands of Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones, who returned the interception to the Saints’ 2.
Jones proved New Orleans’ nemesis in the Dec. 7 loss, picking off Brees in the end zone late to preserve the Atlanta win.
Sunday, New Orleans escaped the potential, game-shifting predicament when linebacker Manti Te’o forced and recovered a fumble by Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman.
“Anyone who has played the game can tell you it is a demoralizing situation,” Te’o said. “They were fourth-and-a-few-inches and didn’t score. I’m just glad that (Sunday) we were on the right side of that.”
Still, the Saints could not move the ball, and a 39-yard punt set up the Falcons’ first scoring drive.
New Orleans answered two possessions later, with a four-play, 54-yard drive that Ingram capped with a 26-yard touchdown run.
The quarter ended with the Saints up 20-3, but Atlanta faced a fourth-and-goal at New Orleans’ 1-yard line.
When the fourth quarter opened, Freeman was stuffed by defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha and cornerback Ken Crawley as the Falcons came up empty again.
The Falcons did pull within 20-6 when Bryant knocked through a 48-yard field goal with 10:18 left in the game.
But Lutz’45-yard field goal bumped the lead to three scores with 3:43 to play, and all Ryan’s 14-yard scoring pass to running back Tevin Coleman with 2:40 to play did was wrap up the scoring.
Kamara finished with 90 yards rushing/receiving, Ingram had 66 total yards and a touchdown, Ginn had four catches for76 yards and a score and receiver Michael Thomas had four catches for 66 yards.
Bryant completed 22-of-36 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown with an interception. Bryant had four interceptions in the two regular-season games against the Saints.
Jones made seven catches for a game-high 149 yards, while Coleman had 56 combined and a score.