Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @wwltvsports
NEW ORLEANS ― The Saints’ defense broke the Atlanta Falcons’ spirit with critical stops and a clutch turnover.
But Monday night, in the Superdome in front of 70,000-plus fans, Drew Brees went one step further.
Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year old NFL record for passing yards in a season with his last pass of the night, a 9-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles to give New Orleans a 45-16 win over the Falcons.
It also handed New Orleans the NFC South title and a home game in the NFC playoffs.
Brees has 5,087 yards this season, eclipsing Marino’s record by three yards. He did it by going 23 of 39 for 307 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
With the crowd in full throat to begin the game, the Falcons drove 65 yards in 11 plays, eating 6 minutes, 7 seconds off the clock to take a 3-0 lead. Saints cornerback Jabari Greer came up big late in the drive, breaking up a Matt Ryan to Julio Jones pass inside the Saints’ 15 on second-and-11.
The Saints answered emphatically.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 49 yards and running back Pierre Thomas pounded out 24 yards on the ground, including a 4-yard scoring run that put the Saints up 7-3. He was flagged for pulling a bow out and putting it onto the ball, but the tone was set.
The Falcons, undisturbed by the noise and New Orleans’ pressure packages, moved right down the field and on third-and-10 from the Saints’ 21, quarterback Matt Ryan hit receiver Julio Jones for a 21-yard touchdown to stake Atlanta to a 10-7 lead.
Not to be outdone, Brees led the Saints right back down the field on a 10-play, 81-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston, extending his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 42 and giving the Saints a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
New Orleans looked poised to extend its lead, but a fluke interception, Brees’ first since Nov. 6, turned the ball over. The Saints forced a punt and then did extend the lead on Brees’ 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Saints led 21-10 at halftime, with Brees needing just 75 yards to go to break Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 passing yards in a season.
New Orleans pushed its lead to 28-10 with 8:28 to go in the third quarter when Brees hit receiver Robert Meachem for a 24-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, after scoring on its first two possessions, Atlanta went without scores on its next four possessions.
The Falcons cut into the Saints lead with a 51-yard Matt Bryant field goal, but New Orleans returner Darren Sproles brought the ensuing kickoff 92 yards to Atlanta’s 14. Kicker John Kasay hit a 29-yard field goal and the Saints were back on top by 18 points.
Bryant kicked a 30-yard goal with 12:43 left to play, the Saints lead was down to 31-16.
New Orleans was forced to punt on the next series and, suddenly, the Falcons were close to getting back in the game.
But on the first play of the possession, Saints linebacker Scott Shanle forced a fumble by Atlanta’s Jones. New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins picked up the loose ball and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown and a 38-16 lead with just 11:09 to go in the game.
The rest was set up for history.