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Saints 26 at Falcons 23

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    <span style=""><span style="">Atlanta </span>– When the New Orleans Saints traded away a couple of draft picks in 2008 for LB Jonathan Vilma, they did so with the hope that the linebacker out of the University of Miami could be a playmaker in the middle of their defense. On Sunday, Vilma made two huge plays in the fourth quarter to ice the Saints' 26-23 victory and see the team clinch a first round bye in the playoffs.  

Vilma intercepted a Chris Redman pass with the Saints leading 26-23 late in the fourth quarter, and then thwarted the Falcons near midfield when he decked RB Jason Snelling after a short completion on a fourth-and-two and stopped the running back from getting the first down.

"Those two defensive plays were important," Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said after the game. "They helped secure the victory, and even though we struggled at times, those plays combined with our offenses ability to score the touchdowns earlier in the game helped the lead hold up. It's never easy winning in this league, and its always a tough game when you play the Falcons. They fought really hard today and had great effort, and we were fortunate to make the plays when we needed them the most."

Vilma said that with the Falcons having their timeouts, that they weren't forced to throw to the sidelines to stop the clock. On the interception Vilma had dropped back in coverage and cut towards an in-cutting Roddy White, perhaps out of view of Redman. "We knew they were going to work the entire field and take some shots over the middle, "I was just able to make a good read on it and break on the pass and thankfully wrap it up. It feels great."

Vilma also was credited for stopping Snelling shy of the first down markers on the Falcons' final drive on a fourth down. "Credit the corners and the safeties, they locked down the outside options and my read took me to the guy coming out of the backfield and I was able to time the hit up as soon as he caught it."

Vilma, with seven tackles and the interception, was hardly the lone Saints player to enjoy a productive afternoon against the resilient Falcons. CB Randall Gay had a team-high eight stops, including a huge 12-yard tackle for a loss in the fourth quarter on an ill-advised run out of wildcat formation. QB Drew Brees completed 31-of-40 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns and has moved into a tie for the most touchdown passes in team history (120), with Aaron Brooks. WR Marques Colston, RB Pierre Thomas and RB Reggie Bush each added six receptions each, with Bush scoring two receiving touchdowns, the first time he has had multiple-touchdowns receiving in a game in his career. The Saints' running game worked hard to manage 95 yards on 26 carries, and the Saints controlled the clock for a season-high 36:44 in time of possession, but couldn't put the Falcons away until the last minute of play.

The Saints (391) were out-gained by one yard by the Falcons (392), but the Saints didn't commit any turnovers, while the Falcons lone interception proved to the difference in the spirited divisional contest.

Earlier in the fourth quarter Saints kicker Garrett Hartley concluded a 15 play Saints scoring drive with a 38-yard field goal with 4:42 left to give the Saints a 26-23 lead over the Falcons.

The Falcons opened the game by accepting the opening kickoff and started at their own 25. After two short runs by running back Jason Snelling, QB Chris Redman connected with Snelling for a gain of 38 yards. The Falcons were able to pick up one more first down on the drive, but the drive stalled at the Saints' 18 after a third down pass from Redman intended for WR Brian Finneran was broke up by the Saints' defenders over the middle of the field. K Matt Bryant, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, came on and opened the scoring on a 36-yard field goal, which ended the nine play, 57-yard drive in 4:43.

The Saints started their first drive at their own 20 and started with a seven-yard run off the left side of the line by RB Pierre Thomas. Drew Brees then found TE Jeremy Shockey on a slant that picked up 10 yards and a first down. On the next play Brees hooked up with WR Marques Colston, who made a leaping 20-yard reception. Brees then found Thomas for a gain of 24 yards after Thomas made two Falcons defenders miss tackles and took the ball to the Atlanta 19. Thomas, however, was stopped for a one-yard loss on the next play, and despite a five yard reception over the middle by Reggie Bush on second down, the Saints were stymied on third down when former LSU CB Chevis Jackson defensed a pass intended for Shockey. K Garrett Hartley opened the scoring for the Saints on a 33-yard field goal that knotted the game at 3-3 midway through the first quarter.

The Falcons started their second drive at their 20 after a Thomas Morstead touchback. The Falcons once again received a big play on the third play of the drive, as reserve WR Eric Weems took a reverse and managed to pick up 31 yards and into Saints territory. The Falcons drove as far as the Saints' 13 yard-line, but were stopped on a third-and-two when DT Sedrick Ellis recorded his second sack of the season when he tracked down a scrambling Chris Redman and dropped him at the Saints' 13. Bryant came on and booted a 30-yard field goal through the uprights that gave the Falcons a 6-3 lead late in the first quarter.

The Saints started at their own 21 and were stuffed on first down when RB Lynell Hamilton was stripped up at the line of scrimmage. A second down was made more difficult when LT Jermon Bushrod was flagged for an illegal procedure call. Brees then hit Shockey for a gain of seven yards and the duo connected on third and long with an 18 yard completion to the Saints' 46. The Saints were flagged for a holding call on a first down run, thus setting them back 10 yards. Brees hit Thomas for a gain of six yards on a swing pass, then went right back to Thomas for a gain of 10 yards on second down. On third and four from the 47 Brees stepped up in the pocket and spotted WR Robert Meachem behind CB Christopher Owes for a gain of 42 yards to the Atlanta 11. Thomas then tried the left side of the Saints' line for a gain of two yards to the nine. Brees then hit Bush for a gain of three yards to the six yard-line on second down. On third down Brees checked down and found Bush near the sideline for a completion that Bush turned up field and ducked inside the pylon for the Saints' first touchdown of the game and a 10-6 lead after Hartley's extra point.

Morstead hammered another kickoff that the Falcons declined to return and accepted the ball at their own 20. Snelling found a crease and picked up seven yards on first down and managed four yards and a first down on second down. The Falcons nearly turned in a huge play when Redman fired a pass deep downfield, but overthrew wide receiver Michael Jenkins by a few feet on first down. Norwood came back and picked up two yards on second down but the Saints stopped the Falcons with tight coverage on third down and forced the Falcons quarterback to throw the ball away. P Michael Koenen hit a 56-yard punt that Bush fielded and broke a 23-yard return to the Saints' 34. It was Bush's longest punt return of the season, besting his 22-yard effort against the New York Jets in week four.

Brees found Colston over the middle for a gain of eight yards, but Thomas was stopped for no gain by DE Kroy Biermann on second down. Meachem took an end around and deked his way to a first down via a four-yard run. Brees then found Bush for a three-yard gain on first down after debating a deep pass to Henderson that was well covered downfield. The Saints called a timeout with 4:33 left in the half after Brees didn't like something he saw in the Falcons defense. WR Devery Henderson was called for a holding call that set the Saints back to a second and 16. Brees, scrambling to his right, hit Shockey for a gain of 11 yards as Shockey slid to make the catch. CB Brent Grimes was flagged for pass interference on a third down pass, giving the Saints a first down and seven more yards. Brees then connected with Henderson for a gain of 13 yards on a comeback route. Thomas then picked up six yards to the Atlanta 23. On the last play before the two-minute warning Brees fired a quick out to Meachem for a gain of four yards and a first down. Brees coolly checked down to Thomas, which picked up tough yards over the middle and managed 12 yards to the seven. Thomas then found four yards to the three. A second down pass attempt to Colston was broken up in the end zone by Jackson but the two connected on the next play for a three-yard scoring strike, however Hartley's extra point bounced off the right upright, making the score 16-6 with :51 left in the first half.

The Falcons, trailing by 10, picked up a 27 yard gain from Redman to WR Roddy White on the first play of their drive. Two short passes then set up a third and four and Redman hung in the pocket in the face of a heavy blitz from the Saints defense and found Jenkins for a gain of nine yards. Redman then hit Marty Booker for a short gain and also Weems, but DE Charles Grant was flagged for a personal foul call that moved the ball inside the Saints' 20. On second-and-ten from the 14 Redman hit WR Brian Finneran for a gain of six yards the Falcons called their final timeout. Redman overthrew Jenkins in the end zone as Malcolm Jenkins had tight coverage. Bryant trotted on and hit a 27-yard field goal that made the score 16-9 at halftime.

The Saints out-gained the Falcons 228 to 195 yards in the first half, with the Saints holding a 16:45 to 13:11 advantage in time out possession.

After a touchback the Saints began the second half at their own 20 in possession of the ball. Thomas began the series with a four-yard gain behind right guard. Brees then found Colston for a five-yard gain to the 29. Bush took a handoff on third-and-one and bolted for a gain of 19 yards to the Atlanta 48 before being tackled. Brees called a timeout with 13:27, which was the Saints' first timeout of the half. Lynell Hamilton's second carry of the game was a nine-yard effort and he converted the first down with a three-yard effort on second down. The first-year running back out of San Diego State then picked up a yard. Bush came in and darted through a hole in the middle of the line for a gain of eight yards before being tackled inches shy of the first down marker. Zach Strief was called for a holding call on a third down, and instead of a third and one, the Saints faced a third and ten from the 40. Brees, sensing a blitz, sent Meachem on a fly pattern down the sideline and lofted a high pass down the sideline. CB Brent Grimes was flagged for a 28-yard pass interference penalty and the Saints had the ball on the Atlanta 12. Brees nearly found Henderson in the end zone but an alert play by CB Thomas DeCoud in the end zone broke the pass up. Bush then had the ball poked out of his grasp by DE John Abraham, which Bush recovered at the Saints' 19. On third and long Brees hit Bush on a screen play and behind a wall of blocker Bush darted untouched into the end zone for his second score of the game. It was Brees' record-tying 120th career touchdown pass as a Saint, moving him to the top of the team's all-time touchdown passing list. It also marked Bush's second multiple touchdown game of the season and extended the Saints' lead to 23-9 with 9:11 left in the third quarter.

The Falcons, though, answered with a five play, 80-yard drive that was capped off by a 50-yard scoring pass from Redman to Jenkins. The extra point by Bryant made the score 23-16 in the Saints' favor with 6:11 left in the third quarter.

New Orleans, which once again began a drive at their own 20, picked up five yards on a Brees to TE David Thomas pass and then Brees hit Meachem over the middle for a gain of 10 yards. Bush then darted through a hole for a gain of eight yards on a first down, followed by a one-yard gain by Thomas. The Saints couldn't pick up the first down and called on Morstead to hit a 35-yard effort that was fair caught by Weems at the Atlanta 21.

Norwood picked up five yards, followed by a pass to White for 14 yards for a first down. Norwood then managed another five-yard gain to the Atlanta 44. Redman's second down pass to Snelling was deflected by a Saints defensive lineman and fell incomplete, but Redman hit Finneran down the sideline for a gain of 19 yards before being knocked down. Snelling was then stopped after a one-yard gain, but Redman came back and found Marty Booker for a gain of eight yards on the last play of the third quarter. Snelling picked up five yards and a first down to the Saints' 22 on a third-and-one. Norwood then took a pitch and appeared to want to throw it to Jenkins in the end zone but tight coverage by Randall Gay negated the throw and DE Charles Grant stopped Norwood for no gain. Redman came back and hit TE Tony Gonzalez for a gain of 18 yards to the four, and on the next play Snelling bulled his way in for the game-tying touchdown after the extra point, 23-23.

The Saints' offense came onto the field and after a first down incompletion, began using short and intermediate passing plays to move the ball. Brees hit Colston for a gain of 12 yards, then Thomas picked up eight yards on a hard run. Thomas converted the second and short with a five yard rushing effort. Brees then connected TE David Thomas for a four-yard gain. Brees and Colston then hooked up for a gain of six yards. Bush then picked up a pair of yards, followed by a Brees pass to Henderson for nine yards. Brees and Thomas teamed up for a one-yard gain and Bush picked up five yards on a run up the middle. On a third-and-four Brees fired a pass in between to defenders and Bush made a leaping grab along the sideline for a gain of eight yards and a first down. Thomas picked up two yards and a pass interference call on CB Thomas DeCoud gave the Saints a first-and-goal from the 10. Brees, though, was hit with a grounding penalty that cost the Saints 10 yards. The Saints couldn't get much closer and ended their 15 play drive that covered 63 yards and took off 8:14 in time of possession off the clock with a 38-yard field goal by Hartley that gave the Saints a 26-23 lead with 4:42 left in the game.

Eric Weems returned the opening kickoff 37 yards to the Atlanta 36. The Falcons tried a Wildcat play that lost 12 yards when Randall Gay tackled Weems for a 12-yard loss. On second down Jonathan Vilma dropped into coverage a picked off intended for Roddy White to give the linebacker his third interception of the season and returned the ball to the Atlanta 32 with 3:53 left in the game. Thomas then managed to squirm his way to a five-yard gain and Brees found Henderson open for a gain of nine yards to the Atlanta 19. The Saints continued to work on the clock, giving the ball to Thomas for a gain of three yards before the Falcons called their first timeout with 2:23 left in the game. Brees' second down pass intended for Thomas was incomplete and the Saints faced a third-and-seven from the 15. Brees's pass, intended for David Thomas, sailed over the tight end's head. A fourth down field goal attempt hit a rocky spot when holder Mark Brunell pulled the ball out and tried to hit YE Darnell Dinkins in the flat. The pass was incomplete and the Falcons took over at their own 15.

Redman hit Snelling for a gain of 18 yards on the final play before the two-minute warning. Redman then hit Booker for a gain of nine yards on first down, and a second down pass intended for White missed its mark. Snelling converted the third and short with a run off of the left side that he turned into a gain of four yards to the Atlanta 46. The Falcons then called their second timeout with 1:32 left in the game. A first down pass intended for Gonzalez was incomplete, as was a second down pass to White. On third-and-10 from the 46 the Falcons brought in four receivers but managed some yards via a completion for eights yards to Gonzalez. On fourth-and-two Redman hit Snelling over the middle but was rocked short of the first down markers by Vilma and the Saints only were required to come out and take a knee.

Inactives: For the New Orleans Saints—K John Carney, WR Lance Moore (listed as the third quarterback), RB Mike Bell, CB Tracy Porter, CB DeMario Pressley/Marcus McCauley.aspx">Marcus McCauley, CB Jabari Greer, LB Marvin Mitchell and LB Scott Fujita. The Saints' starting lineup changes were Troy Evans for Fujita at SLB, Randall Gay for Greer at LCB and Malcolm Jenkins for Porter at RCB.

For the Atlanta Falcons--- QB Matt Ryan, CB Chris Houston, RB Michael Turner, FB Verron Hayes, G Harvey Dahl, TE Jason Rader, TE Justin Peelle and DT Trey Lewis. Starting lineup changes for the Falcons included Chris Redman starting in place of Ryan at QB, RB Jerious Norwood in place of Turner at RB, CB Brent Grimes in place of Houston at RCB and Quinn Ojinnaka at RG in place of Harvey Dahl.

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