ATLANTA » After tossing up two throws in the fourth quarter that he wishes never left his hand, Drew Brees connected on the one that really counted for the New Orleans Saints.
Brees shook off a pair of interceptions in the final period, hooking up with rookie Jimmy Graham on a 6-yard touchdown with 3:24 remaining to give New Orleans a 17-14 victory over the Atlanta Falcons yesterday. Brees and the Saints denied the Falcons from clinching the NFC South title and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
And Who Dat going back to the playoffs? That would be the Saints, who showed they aren’t ready to give up their Super Bowl title with a win that should give them a huge boost of confidence heading into the postseason.
The Falcons (12-3), meanwhile, might be having some doubts after their eight-game winning streak was snapped at the Georgia Dome, where they have been virtually unbeatable in Mike Smith’s three years as coach.
Still, the loss doesn’t ruin Atlanta’s two main goals. The Falcons can still wrap up their first division crown since 2004 and home field through the NFC playoffs by knocking off two-win Carolina at home in the final week of the season.
But this one stung, especially because there’s a real possibility these teams will meet again in the playoffs.
"It feels good," Brees said. "You just want to punch your ticket to the big show, and we’ve done that. Obviously Carolina needs to beat Atlanta next week so we can get that one seed."
Brees completed six straight passes on a 13-play, 90-yard drive, the last one to the rookie tight end for the winning score. That made up for Brees’ ill-advised attempt to flip a backhanded pass to escape heavy pressure, but instead the throw was picked off by Chauncey Davis and returned 26 yards for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth — giving the Falcons their first lead all night.
It didn’t last, even after Brees was picked off again on a brilliant play by defensive end John Abraham, who batted the ball high in the air then grabbed it himself.
"That’s part of it," Brees said. "It’s the ebb and flow of the game. Sometimes you have a clean pocket. Sometimes they’re getting after you.
"In the end, we found a way to win."
After Abraham’s interception, the Saints held the Falcons just past midfield, then got the ball back at their own 10. The first two plays lost a yard, but Brees connected with Lance Moore on an 18-yard pass to keep the drive going.
Brees didn’t miss again, completing his next five throws to drive the Saints down the field. On third and 3 at the 6, he flicked a quick pass to Graham slanting over the middle. He got a step on William Moore and Brees delivered the ball just out of the reach of Sean Weatherspoon for the touchdown.
Matt Ryan broke off a career-long 20-yard run, but the Saints held at the 43 and Atlanta chose to punt. Brees never gave them the ball back, completing two more passes before Pierre Thomas dove over for a game-clinching first down on third and inches.
"We don’t want to feel this way the rest of the season," Ryan said. "We’re going to work hard to make sure we don’t."
The Falcons didn’t play their typically clean game.
An errant snap by Todd McClure out of the shotgun was recovered by New Orleans, setting up Thomas’ 2-yard touchdown run that gave the Saints a 10-0 lead and breaking Atlanta’s streak of seven straight games without a fumble.