Historically, which is the best the Saints team?
NEW ORLEANS – Tom Benson walked over to Sean Payton and greeted him with a “Put it there, partner.”
Suffice it to say, the owner of the New Orleans Saints will take a win any way they come.
That’s a good thing because Monday night in front of a national television audience, Payton’s Saints played their closest, sloppiest game yet.
And still they won, overcoming four turnovers and missed opportunities to put away the Atlanta Falcons 35-27 in a sold-out Superdome.
“We came up big on defense when we needed to when we turned the ball over,” Payton said. “I’m excited to win.”
But the mood inside the locker room spoke a different story, one in which players seemingly knew they escaped with a win for the second week in a row. The Saints (7-0) overcame a 21-point deficit against Miami a week earlier to get a win.
“The thing was we know we made a lot of mistakes,” Saints defensive end Bobby McCray said. “Two weeks in a row, (we’ve had) mistakes and penalties which we can’t do if we want to be this team seeking greatness. A win is a win. We’re excited for the win and won’t take anything from that. But we’ve just got to correct the small things.”
This one didn’t come easy. Pierre Thomas fumbled the ball back to the Falcons (4-3) early in the fourth quarter, putting Atlanta in prime position at the New Orleans 35. After a 24-yard run in which Michael Turner pushed through tackles, the Falcons were in position to take the lead.
But two plays later Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma tipped a pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, sending the pass offline just enough for cornerback Tracy Porter to intercept.
And the Saints’ offense, stymied for the entire second half, came alive. New Orleans converted two third downs, the most important of which was Drew Brees’ 1-yard touchdown pass to Thomas, who atoned for his earlier fumble by diving in from the 2.
“When that fumble happened, I felt like I let the team down and I had to bounce back and go out and show my team I can go out and bounce back,” said Thomas, who finished with 93 total yards and two touchdowns.
The interception, though, is what turned the tide of the game.
“The ball was tipped on the interception when we were going in to score in the red zone,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It was definitely a crucial play in the ballgame.”
“The biggest thing was not only they didn’t get points, but we ended up with a touchdown and a two-score game and pretty much put the game out of reach,” Vilma said.
Out of reach almost turned into completely within reach.
New Orleans running back Mike Bell fumbled and Atlanta recovered. Jason Elam hit a 40-yard field goal to make it an eight-point game with 28 seconds left and the Falcons recovered the onside kick.
The flame finally burned out for Atlanta when New Orleans’ Darren Sharper intercepted a last gasp pass to end the game.
“That’s not the way we want to finish,” Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “In the end we got a win. We’ll have a tough work week ahead of us. I don’t think it’s going to be lost in the guys in this locker room. Those mistakes are going to catch up with us at some point unless we clean them up.”
After having not trailed for 300 minutes of the season, New Orleans trailed for much of its win over the Dolphins a week ago.
On Monday night, the Saints would again trail early.
Atlanta won the toss and promptly marched down the field, scoring on the opening drive when Turner, who finished the game with 151 yards on 20 carries, turned the corner for a speedy 13-yard run around right end to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead.
Not to be outdone, the Saints came right back, converting two third-and-fours, including Pierre Thomas’ 22-yard touchdown run in which he broke two tackles and made two other Falcons miss.
But after the Saints forced Atlanta’s offense to punt, the Falcons’ defense came up with the first big defensive play of the night. Thomas DeCoud decleated Brees on a delayed middle blitz, forcing a fumble that Atlanta’s Kroy Biermann recovered for a 4-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
“As I was getting up, I saw the ball come loose and Kroy took it in for the score,” DeCoud said. “At that time, it was a big play in the ballgame.”
Moments later, though, Brees regained his footing and found his favorite target, lofting a pass up to receiver Marques Colston for an 18-yard game-tying touchdown.
Reggie Bush’s 1-yard touchdown gave New Orleans the lead with a little more than a minute to go in the half. Twenty-three seconds later, cornerback Jabari Greer returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown and a 28-14 lead.
“I realized against a good team, you have to be able to capitalize on that,” Greer said. “I told myself if I ever get another opportunity I’d do my best to make a play. As the play came, I just made it happen.”
Greer’s pick-6 was New Orleans’ fifth of the season, tying a team record set in 1998.
Atlanta pulled within a touchdown when Ryan hit Roddy White for a 68-yard scoring strike and then Jason Elam hit a 25-yarder and with 11:33 to go in the game, cutting further into the Saints to 28-24.
That set up the frantic final 10 minutes.
Drew Brees finished the game 25 of 35 for 308 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Half his passing yards went to Marques Colston, who finished with 85 yards and a score, and Jeremy Shockey, who tallied 72 yards on five catches.
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan finished 19 of 42 for 289 yards and a touchdown. But more importantly, he finished with three interceptions.