After weeks of insisting that they were a whisker within playing the kind of game they were capable of delivering, the New Orleans Saints delivered a hair-raising performance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday night in front of a national television audience.
New Orleans didn't just knock Atlanta from among the ranks of the unbeaten in a 31-21 victory. The Saints (2-4) jumped their NFC South Division rivals in the short-week game and didn't let up until the Falcons (5-1) had been beaten in every phase, with New Orleans improving to 26-11 in prime time games since 2006, and 18-4 in home games under the national television glare during that time.
On defense, the Saints forced three turnovers (fumble recoveries by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Brandon Browner and defensive end Cam Jordan), sacked Matt Ryan five times (three by Jordan) and stopped Atlanta on nine of its 12 third-down conversion attempts.
"Strong start, strong finish, what more can you ask for?" Jordan said. "Both sides of the ball played extremely well. Defense started strong, gave the ball back with two (early) turnovers, a couple of third-down get-offs, that's what you want on defense.
"I don't know what kind of yards they had, I don't know what production they had, I know that we had a lot of disruption in the backfield and really just getting after the ball."
On offense, the Saints kept Drew Brees (one sack allowed) clean enough to complete 30 of 39 passes for 312 yards and a touchdown, without an interception, despite having to play their third left tackle (recently signed Tony Hills) and No. 2 left guard (Senio Kelemete) due to injuries, and hammered away at Atlanta with 32 rushing attempts, helping to claim a time of possession advantage of 32:30-27:30.
"We felt like it was a game where we were going to need to be patient and just pick and choose our spots," Brees said. "We were hoping we were going to be able to run the ball, and we weren't really able to do that. The average per carry (2.5 yards) wasn't where we want it to be yet, but I feel like the pounding from the run attack wore those guys down a bit."
And on special teams, the Saints countered two missed field goals by Zach Hocker with the most energizing play of the night – Michael Mauti's smothered punt that he scooped and scored on a 4-yard return, giving New Orleans a 14-0 lead with 2:06 left in the first quarter.
"I thought we played with a lot of emotion," Coach Sean Payton said. "I thought we capitalized on the blocked punt. That was a pretty significant play early on. Defensively, we did a really good job, not necessarily between the 20s, but our red zone defense came up big. It was just a good team win, and I think that's a really, really good team we just played."
For Mauti, it was an alignment of stars. His theatrics came on a night when former Saint Steve Gleason was honored by the Pro Football Writers of America with the George Halas Award, for overcoming adversity and succeeding.
Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, provided a signature play in franchise history against Atlanta on Sept. 25, 2006. The safety blocked a punt on which the Saints recovered and scored a touchdown, in a "Monday Night Football" game in which the Saints celebrated the reopening of the Superdome after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina with a 23-3 win over the Falcons.
Mauti's block and score didn't carry the same historical value. But football-wise, it was an adrenaline shot heard 'round New Orleans.
"I was in the stands when Steve Gleason blocked that punt against Atlanta," said Mauti, a New Orleans native who played at Mandeville High and whose father, Rich, also played for the Saints. "This is a special feeling. That's what I've been dreaming about since I was sitting in that seat, and to live that out is something special.
"He's one of my heroes. I remember watching him when I was in high school. And I looked up to him and to do that, especially against Atlanta like he did, that's something I've been dreaming about for a long time."
The good work didn't stop there.
After Atlanta pulled to within 14-7 on a 7-yard pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White, the Saints answered with two third-quarter scores – a 31-yard field goal by Hocker and Brees' 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson, who tied his single-game high in receptions (10) and set a career high with 127 receiving yards.
"Praise God for the opportunities and it seemed to be my night tonight," Watson said. "We played a great game collectively. Defense did a good job, special teams blocked a punt, offense we were able to score in the red zone and able to sustain some long drives. Those were all goals coming in and when you put all that together, you can win in this league."
The wins certainly come easier when a team produces defensive stops, takes a sizeable lead and then sacks the opposing quarterback four times in the closeout quarter.
Atlanta pulled to within 24-14 on Devonta Freeman's 25-yard touchdown run with 13:07 left in the game. But after the Saints responded with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive – capped by Mark Ingram's 1-yard run, his second rushing touchdown of the night – to take a 31-14 lead, they turned it over to the defense.
On Atlanta's next drive, Ryan was sacked by Jordan on second-and-10 from the Atlanta 20-yard line, then by Hau'oli Kikaha on third-and-17 from the 13.
Hocker's missed 48-yard field-goal attempt ended New Orleans' next drive, and the Falcons drove 62 yards in 11 plays to pull to within 31-21 on Freeman's 13-yard touchdown reception from Ryan with 89 seconds left.
The Saints recovered the onside kick, drained the clock to 31 seconds before Brandon Fields punted 27 yards to the Falcons' 17-yard line, and finished the game when Jordan sacked Ryan, stripped him of the ball, gave Ryan a two-handed shove to the chest to clear Ryan away and recovered the ball at the 16 with 17 seconds left.
Brees kneeled to end the game and give New Orleans its second straight home victory this season.
"It's validation, when you can go out and play like we did tonight, after a short week and a miserable loss in Philadelphia on Sunday," Brees said. "To put together such a complete game, both offensively and defensively, doing what we needed to do, it was incredible.
"You talk about it all year long, so for it all to come together like that and just give us a glimpse of what we can be and show all that hard work and trust and belief in one another can and is paying off, is truly something special."
Photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Atlanta Falcons. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)