NEW ORLEANS — Strike up the jazz band.
The Saints are marching again.
New Orleans held off NFC South rival Atlanta 31-27 on Sunday thanks to a late goal-line stand, sending the Falcons back to the Peach State wondering just what happened.
For the 11th time in the past 13 games between the two franchises, New Orleans (4-5) ended the game the victor. And this one couldn’t have been any sweeter, knocking away Atlanta’s (8-1) hope for a perfect season.
“A rivalry?” current Saint and former Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton asked. “I wouldn’t say so because the Saints always (come) out on top of that. It’s not even. It’s a divisional game and that brings extra attitude to it but I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry.”
The game turned on four plays in the final 2½ minutes when the Saints’ defense came up with its second goal-line stand of the season.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed a pass to receiver Harry Douglas on first-and-goal from the 10. At the 1-yard line, however, Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and nickelback Johnny Patrick collided with the receiver, keeping him from crossing the goal line.
One play later, Jenkins knocked away Ryan’s pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez and on third-down, New Orleans defensive end Will Smith hit Michael Turner in the backfield for a one-yard loss.
On fourth-and-goal, Ryan, who went 34 of 52 for 411 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, spotted receiver Roddy White streaking in the back of the end zone. Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, though, knew the play and at the last moment, dived in front of White, knocking the ball away.
“They had run a play that we had seen on film,” Greer said. “Fortunately, we were in a coverage to make a play.”
Said White, who finished with seven catches for 114 yards, “We had opportunities today. It’s not like they came out here and just won the game. I kind of think we gave it away. We gave it to them. It was really nothing they did. It was everything we did and not cashing in on opportunities.”
The defense held Atlanta to just 46 yards rushing, the lone statistical bright spot. The Falcons were 8 of 16 on third down and rolled up 456 total yards.
But when it mattered most, the Saints’ defense came up with the stop.
“We knew they were going to make plays but we had to make plays, too,” Lofton said.
Offensively, the Saints were balanced, running the ball 29 times for 148 yards while quarterback Drew Brees was 21 of 32 for 298 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
“That’s great balance,” Brees said. “That’s what you’re looking for. That’s when you know you’re really rolling as an offense.”
New Orleans was 4 of 10 on third down but 2 of 3 in the red zone.
Tight end Jimmy Graham finished with a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns receiving.
The run game, though, was the story and allowed Brees to open the game up with play-action plays.
Chris Ivory led the Saints on the ground, cobbling 72 yards and one spectacular 56-yard touchdown run on seven carries while Mark Ingram put up 67 yards on 16 carries.
“When we can run the effectively and be balanced, it just opens up everything from Drew – downfield throws, for the receivers downfield passes and it opens up the play-action,” Ingram said.
It didn’t take long for the Falcons to quiet the sold-out Superdome. After the initial play of the game lost three yards, Ryan drove Atlanta to a 7-0 lead in just 3 minutes, 22 seconds. First he hit receive White – behind Greer in single coverage – for a 49-yard pass. Two plays later, Ryan hit tackle eligible Mike Johnson for a 1-yard touchdown pass.
Then, on the Saints first play of the game, Brees threw to his right towards receiver Marques Colston. But the pass fell short and Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel made a diving interception. Two minutes later, Matt Bryant’s 37-yard field goal pushed New Orleans’ deficit to 10-0.
Ivory then struck with his PlayStation-style touchdown run, taking the ball around right end past the defender and sprinted upfield. He made three players miss tackles, cut back to his left and finished the play with a manhandling stiff-arm of Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson to complete the play.
Just like that, the Saints were down only 10-7.
“He’s a beast,” Brees said of Ivory. “On more than one occasion, he stiff-armed somebody or (ran) somebody over or cut back on somebody. He’s a rare combination of speed and power.”
Moments later, they were ahead after Brees capped a 90-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown strike to tight end Jimmy Graham.
The lead didn’t last, though. Atlanta converted three third downs on a seven-minute drive to retake the lead 17-14 on a two-yard Gonzalez touchdown catch.
New Orleans ran the two-minute drill to perfection to end the half, taking back the lead on an eight-play, 69-yard scoring drive finished by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Graham.
The score gave the Saints a 21-17 halftime lead.
New Orleans extended its lead to 28-17 after rookie cornerback Corey White intercepted Ryan. Brees hit Colston for a seven-yard scoring strike, a touchdown that tied the receiver with former Saints running back Deuce McAllister for most in franchise history with 55.
The Saints weren’t in the clear, though.
Atlanta drove 91 yards on 11 plays, picking up seven first downs on its way to cutting into New Orleans’ lead 28-24 on Ryan’s second touchdown pass to Gonzalez, this time from six yards out.
Bryant’s second field goal of the day, a 20-yarder, cut further into the Saints’ lead and with 9:08 to play New Orleans’ one-time 11-point lead was down to a tenuous point.
Garrett Hartley’s 31-yard field goal pushed the lead back to four at 31-27 and set up the frantic finish.
“We’ve always played them tough and haven’t had the outcomes we wanted,” the Falcons’ Ryan said. “I don’t worry about the past. And today we just didn’t play as good as we wanted to.”