ATLANTA — Turns out, Atlanta had some life left in it.
Turns out, the Saints were more than happy to take what little there was of it left.
New Orleans’ defense forced two punts, forced a fumble and field goal while holding the Falcons to just 149 second-half yards and left the Georgia Dome with a hard-earned 17-13 win over their NFC South rivals.
After Atlanta took over at its own 9 with nearly eight minutes to play and down just four points, New Orleans’ defense couldn’t seem to stop the Falcons as they were driving for what could have been the game-winning points.
But on second-and-10 from the Saints’ 29, Cameron Jordan did what he has done all year – dominated the man across from him to get to the quarterback.
Jordan’s second full sack of the night put the Falcons on their heels and two plays later, Matt Bryant pushed a 52-yard field goal wide left.
That allowed the Saints to regain possession and move down the field while controlling the clock, eating up all but the final five seconds of the game.
It’s likely New Orleans (9-2) didn’t fully expect to find itself in this type of game; the Falcons were 2-8 and coming off of a 13-point loss to Tampa Bay and defeats in seven of their past eight games.
Atlanta kept it close by holding onto the ball, possessing it for nearly seven more minutes than New Orleans. And the Falcons were 6 of 12 on third down.
Drew Brees was 23 of 33 for 278 yards, two touchdowns and a 115.5 rating, throwing no interceptions. He got help from the run game, too, thanks to Pierre Thomas’ 73 yards on the ground.
While New Orleans’ defense gave up 281 yards passing to Matt Ryan, he didn’t throw a touchdown pass and never completed the long game-changing pass. The Falcons gained only 91 yards on the ground.
And now New Orleans heads to Seattle for a Dec. 2 showdown with NFC-leading Seattle (10-1). The winner of that game takes over the critical home-field advantage aspect of the postseason race with just a month to play.
The night couldn’t have started out much worse for New Orleans. After the offense gained only three yards on the opening three plays, including two runs for negative yardage, the Saints punted.
Atlanta then drove 76 yards in 10 plays, Ryan completing three passes for 34 yards and Jackson gaining 24 and a touchdown on the drive. The Saints allowed three third-down conversions on the drive.
The NFL being a third-down league, the Saints showed they could match the Falcons. Brees and the offense converted five such plays, including a one-yard touchdown to tight end Benjamin Watson. And 7:31 after Atlanta took a 7-0 lead, the Saints tied it up.
New Orleans looked again like it was going to give up a long Falcons drive, but a sack by Akiem Hicks, one that looked similar to Ahmad Brooks’ on Brees a four days earlier, stopped Atlanta’s drive. Hicks’ hit drew no flag and the Falcons settled for a 10-7 lead on Matt Bryant’s 39-yard field goal.
Five plays later, Jimmy Graham got behind Falcons safety William Moore and hauled in a 44-yard touchdown, handing the Saints their first lead of the game. He then delayed the game when his dunk unleveled the goal post. When play resumed, the Saints’ point-after gave them a 14-10 lead.
Atlanta used up nearly half the clock in getting to New Orleans’ 10 before the drive stalled. And on third-and-goal, Ryan had what looked to be daylight to walk into the end zone, but the Saints’ defense closed quickly and he slid for a four-yard gain. Bryant’s second field goal, a 24-yarder, cut New Orleans’ lead to 14-13.
New Orleans pushed its lead to 17-13 on Garrett Hartley’s 41-yard field goal late in the third quarter.