The New Orleans Saints defense - much maligned after surrendering a league-record for yardage in 2012 - made the game-saving play in the closing minute as the Saints won in Coach Sean Payton's return, defeating the Atlanta Falcons 23-17 Sunday before 72,348 fans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Safety Roman Harper grabbed a fourth-down pass in the end zone to seal the season-opening game for the Saints against their bitter division rivals. While the Falcons amassed 367 yards of offense, the defense came up with big play after play to capture the victory in front of a frenzied group of fans.
"It was a hard fought win," Payton said Sunday. "I just finished talking to the guys and certainly there are a lot of things we will have to clean up but I thought they played hard. We had a couple of guys who went in when a few guys went down and they handled that pretty well. We kind of knew this game would go back and forth with the momentum and we also thought there was a good chance it would come down to the final possession since it has so many other times. That is a good football team, obviously, that we just played."
Harper also recovered a first-half fumble which led to the team's first touchdown, a 25-yard pass from Drew Brees to his favorite target, Marques Colston. The catch was the 533rd of Colston's career, a franchise record. He finished with five catches for 68 yards.
Quarterback Drew Brees was 26 of 35 for 357 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It was the 100th multiple TD game of Brees' career and the 68th time he has thrown for more than 300 yards.
Pierre Thomas led the team in rushing yardage with 43 on nine carries. Darren Sproles had an outstanding game as he carried the ball eight times for 22 yards, with six receptions for 88 yards and 30 yards in returns.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was 25 of 38 for 304 yards with two TDs and one interception. New Atlanta running back Steven Jackson ripped off a 50-yard run in the third quarter and finished with 77 yards on 11 carries. He dropped a potential game-winning pass on the goal on third down on the Falcons' final possession.
Harry Douglas led the Atlanta receivers with four catches for 93 yards while Julio Jones had seven catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. Ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez has three catches for 36 yards and caught Atlanta's first touchdown pass. Gonzalez was the intended target on Ryan's fourth-down pass that Vaccaro deflected into Harper's arms.
The Saints opened the season with 10 rookies on their roster and several made big plays including receiver Kenny Stills (67-yard reception), safety Kenny Vaccaro (five tackles and numerous big hits) and defensive tackle John Jenkins.
The Saints had three sacks, one from Junior Galette, one from new linebacker Parys Haralson and one by second-year defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.
"We didn't blitz a lot so we felt it was going to be important with the four-man rush and the three-man rush," Payton said. "We had to at least hurry him and Matt is really good at extending plays and I thought that was important."
The Saints will play their second straight division game next week when they travel to Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers (0-1).
"It was just important to get the first win," Payton said. "You try to compartmentalize each week, each game and we played a good team. It was good to get the win, it is good to start the season that way. I thought we fought hard, especially late in the game."