NEW ORLEANS >>Proud veterans Drew Brees and Ben Watson summoned their best performances of the season and restored a bit of swagger to the recently reeling Saints.
Brees passed for 312 yards, Watson racked up a career-high 127 yards receiving to go with a fourth-down touchdown catch, and New Orleans handed the Atlanta Falcons their first loss of the season with a 31-21 win on Thursday night.
Desperate for a victory, the Saints (2-4) enjoyed big plays in all phases, a common occurrence when New Orleans hosts night games. Including the playoffs, the Saints have now won 19 of 21 games in the Superdome in prime time.
Michael Mauti, who grew up near New Orleans after his father, Rich, played for the Saints, blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown, delighting the Superdome crowd with a play reminiscent of Steve Gleason’s famous block against Atlanta in 2006. Mark Ingram ran for two short touchdowns, and New Orleans’ defense recovered three fumbles — two inside its own 20.
Devonta Freeman rushed for 100 yards, including a 25-yard TD, for Atlanta (5-1). Matt Ryan passed for 295 yards and two TDs.
Freeman also turned a short pass into a 13-yard touchdown, but by then it was too late for the Falcons.
Freeman’s first touchdown cut New Orleans’ lead to 24-14 with 13:07 remaining, putting pressure on the Saints to answer.
The Saints responded with the type of will-imposing drive that was commonplace during much of the decade since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans, but seldom seen this season.
New Orleans drove 80 yards in 11 plays, eating about five minutes off the clock. During the series, Watson tied a career high with his 10th catch of the game. Brees found Brandon Cooks for 26 yards on one third down. Ingram capped the drive by powering in for his second TD to make it 31-14.
That wasn’t the only example of the swagger restored to the Saints’ offense. Late in the third quarter, the Saints capped a 10-play, 63 yard drive by first drawing Atlanta offside on fourth-and-goal from the four, then kept the offense on the field and converted a 2-yard pass to Watson.
The Saints never trailed, racing in front on the opening series, an 80-yard drive capped by Ingram’s first TD.
Mauti made it 14-0 when he smothered Matt Bosher’s punt attempt, scooped up the ball as he landed and danced into the end zone.
Atlanta cut it to 14-7 on Ryan’s 7-yard pass to Roddy White, but the Falcons, who outgained the Saints 265-174 in the half, squandered a pair of promising drives with fumbles. First, rookie Tevin Coleman coughed up the ball on a tackle by Jairus Byrd as linebacker Dannell Ellerbe punched the ball out from behind and cornerback Brandon Browner recovered on the 9. Later, Ryan mishandled a snap and Ellerbe recovered on the New Orleans 17.