ATLANTA — New Orleans’ defense did everything it could to keep the Saints in Thursday night’s critical NFC showdown with rival Atlanta.
Drew Brees did everything he could to give the game away to the Falcons.
In the end, Brees’ interceptions and the offense’s failure to fully capitalize on two drives inside the Falcons 10-yard line were too much.
New Orleans lost 23-13 to the Falcons and now must be wondering what else could go wrong with the season.
The Saints (5-7) tried to overcome the mistakes. After Brees’ fourth interception, the defense forced a fumble by Michael Turner and New Orleans’ Rafael Bush recovered, giving the Saints the ball back at their own 29.
Brees’ desperation heave to Marques Colston down the left sideline was intercepted by Atlanta’s William Moore. Brees’ consecutive games with a touchdown streak ended at 54 games and likely so did New Orleans’ hopes of a postseason berth.
After a rough first series, the Saints’ defense held its ground for much of the night, allowing the Falcons (11-1) to convert just 1 of 10 third downs while gaining only 283 yards. Matt Ryan was just 18 of 33 for 165 yards and a touchdown.
But the Saints’ offense was out of sync when it had to be in sync and once again, Brees was in the middle of the mistakes. Two of his five interceptions were turned into points and he finished the game 28 of 50 for 341 yards and five interceptions, a 37.6 quarterback rating the icing on the cake.
The biggest failure, though, came at the end of the first half.
Brees had the Saints in position to get a momentum-stealing score just before halftime. However, a penalty nullified a touchdown with 51 seconds to go and the Saints without a timeout.
From the shotgun, Brees threw a short pass to Darren Sproles from the Atlanta 17. He then went back to Sproles in the middle of the field with only 12 seconds on the clock.
New Orleans didn’t get another snap off and instead of cutting into a 10-point deficit, went to halftime with nothing to show for the field position.
After being outgained 140-70 in the first quarter, the Saints outgained Atlanta by nearly 3-to-1 the rest of the way. But three drives inside the Falcons’ 10-yard line resulted in just 10 points and instead of being in position to just need a field goal, the Saints were down too much at the end.
The game couldn’t have started much worse for the Saints. After holding the Falcons to fewer than 50 yards rushing in their first meeting this season, Atlanta established the run right away Thursday night. The Falcons drove 80 yards in six plays, including five runs for 71 yards, to take a 7-0 lead just four minutes into the game.
New Orleans appeared close to tying on its first drive, a 38-yard pass from Brees to Joe Morgan seemingly igniting the offense. But soon after, Brees under threw Marques Colston in the end zone and Atlanta’ Thomas DeCoud made a leaping interception.
Atlanta then pushed its lead to 14-0 when Ryan launched a perfectly-placed pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez for a 17-yard touchdown. Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton was in close coverage, but couldn’t dislodge the ball from the future Hall of Famer’s hands.
The Falcons’ advantage grew to 17-0 four plays after Brees’ second interception of the game. The Saints’ quarterback threw behind running back Chris Ivory and the ball bounced into the hands of Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon. Matt Bryant converted the turnover into a 45-yard field goal
But after a listless first quarter and a half, Brees reclaimed his pocket awareness, picked up critical yards with clutch passes and the Saints’ offensive engine began to start rolling. Yet, it was a bulldozing, leg-churning nine-yard that seemed to reinvigorate the unit. He got the ball to the goal line and Mark Ingram got it over and, with 3:18 to play in the first half, the Saints were down 17-7.
And the Saints could have closed the gap even further just before halftime. But on a Brees-to-Darren Sproles touchdown pass with 51 seconds to go in the half, tight end Jimmy Graham was called for interference. From there, poor clock management kept the Saints from even attempting a field goal.
New Orleans cut the deficit to 17-10 out of halftime on a 21-yard Garrett Hartley field goal. The Saints got to the Falcons’ 7 before losing a yard and on third-and-goal, Thomas could only get to the Atlanta 3.
Hartley’s 52-yard late in the third quarter pulled the Saints to within 17-13. A Bryant 29-yard field goal pushed Atlanta’s lead back to a touchdown with most of the fourth quarter to go.
Bryant’s 55-yard field goal with 4:25 iced the game.