**New Orleans –** The Saints, through the first seven games of the season, have proven they can win pretty, can win ugly, can win via the comeback, and can protect a late lead, if need be. They also proved, perhaps most importantly, that they can win against the NFC South, and against their next closest competitor.
RB Pierre Thomas capped an 11-play, 81-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown reception from Drew Brees to put the Saints ahead of the Falcons, 35-24, with just under three minutes to go in the game.
"When my number was called, I knew I had to make a play," Thomas said. "I had to help my teammates and make a play. Coach Payton called a great play that got us into the end zone. It was a struggle, and Atlanta put up a great fight. We have to eliminate the fumbles and the turnovers, and if we do that, we will be a tough team to stop."
The Saints hung on and survived a late Hail Mary attempt following a Falcons field goal and walked away with a hard-earned 35-27 win.
"I'm pleased and excited with that win," said Saints Head Coach Sean Payton. "It wasn't always pretty and clean, but we did enough to beat a very good team and that pleases me. Our defense came up with some game-turning plays. It feels good and clearly we did enough to earn the win.
"We are focused on just trying to get better and we have Carolina coming in here off a big win," Payton said. "We just need to get right back to it and continue to keep improving."
The Saints improved to 7-0 for just the second time in team history and moved ahead of the pesky Falcons by three games in the NFC South standings following their first win against NFC South opponents this season. The Saints and the Indianapolis Colts, also 7-0, remain the two lone unbeatens through eight weeks of NFL play.
The Saints, who trailed early, 7-0 and 14-7, used a 21-point second quarter to take the lead and never looked back, but all the while had the competitive Falcons nipping at their heels. New Orleans was edged in the total yards category, 442 to 437, but came up with two huge interceptions, one each by the Saints' starting cornerback duo of Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, to turn away the Falcons (4-3).
Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 25-of-33 passes for 308 yards with two touchdowns to one interception and captained an 81-yard, 11 play drive in the fourth quarter that widened the Saints lead from 28-24 to 35-24 after he found Thomas in the flat and the tough running back went airborne for the remainder of the play and the score. The Saints' rushing attack seemed to match the impressive rushing attack of the Falcons, who featured Michael Turner with 151 yards on 20 carries. The Saints' tandem of Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas pounded out 146 yards on 35 carries and two scores, including one by Reggie Bush.
The Saints' passing attack was led by the outstanding efforts of leading receivers Marques Colston (6-85-14.2-1 TD) and TE Jeremy Shockey, who hauled in five receptions for 72 yards (14.4 yards), including a sensational 27-yard reception that he hauled along the sideline.
The Saints had witnessed their once 14-point lead shrink to a mere four points earlier in the fourth quarter, but the team's late fourth quarter drive, which was set up by a CB Tracy Porter interception, sparked the Saints' offense, who made several huge and clutch plays in crunch time on the drive. Porter finished with six tackles (second-most on the team) along with the interception and pass defensed.
The Saints outgained the Falcons 288 yards to 187 in the first half, including an impressive 104 yards on the ground with RB Pierre Thomas churning out 75 yards on eight carries including a 22-yard touchdown run, while Mike Bell has picked up 26 yards and Bush three and a score. QB Drew Brees completed 15-of-his-first 17 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown pass to WR Marques Colston.
Atlanta won the opening coin toss and elected to receive and began their opening drive at their own 23 yard line. Turner began the drive with two consecutive carries, one for three yards and the next for 22 yards to the Atlanta 48. Ryan's first pass of the game was an incompletion but he responded two plays later with a five-yard completion to WR Michael Jenkins for a first down. The biggest play on the drive came via a 27-yard completion to TE Tony Gonzalez, which took the ball from the New Orleans 40 to the Saints' 13. On the next play Turner went around the right end of the Falcons' offensive line for a 13-yard scoring run. Following K Jason Elam's extra point the Falcons, 7-0, with just having 3:57 in time of possession expired off of the clock.
RB Mike Bell started the Saints' first drive with a five-yard run and followed it up with a nine-yard burst off the left side of the line for a first down. A four-yard completion from Brees to Lance Moore on first down set up a short draw from Reggie Bush, which brought up a third-down and Brees found Shockey down the sideline and fired a back-shoulder bullet to him for a gain of 13 yards and a first down. Thomas then churned out an eight-yard gain on first down, and Brees came right back and found TE David Thomas for a gain of 11 yards and another first down. Brees then hit Bush for a gain of four yards and then Bell picked up two on a subsequent inside carry. On a third-and-four from the Falcons' 22, Thomas slammed into the line of scrimmage and appeared to be stopped near the first down marker, but Thomas stuttered-stepped and hopped out of a would-be tackle and scampered the remaining 18 yards into the end zone. Following John Carney's extra point, the Saints and Falcons were knotted at 7-7. The Saints were flagged 15 yards for an excessive celebration penalty and had to kickoff from their own 15.
Atlanta started their second drive at their own 46-yard line. Turner picked up three yards on first down, and then the powerful running back was met by LB Jonathan Vilma after a three-yard gain. LB Marvin Mitchell was guilty of an encroachment penalty on third down that gave the Falcons a first down, but DE Will Smith sacked Ryan on second down for a loss of two-yards. It would be the first of two sacks for Smith, who very nearly added another one in the fourth quarter. A second down pass intended for Michael Jenkins was overthrown after CB Tracy Porter blitzed off the blindside corner. DT Anthony Hargrove stopped Ryan after a gain of one yard on third down and forced the Falcons to punt the football away, which Lance Moore fair caught at the Saints' nine-yard line with 2:30 remaining in the first quarter.
The Saints began their next drive by getting DT Jonathan Babineaux to jump offsides for a quick gain of five yards. On second-and-five Brees tried a play-action blitz by was sacked by S Thomas Decoud with a jarring hit. Brees couldn't hang onto the ball and second-year defensive end Kroy Bierrman scooped up the loose ball and returned it four-yards for a touchdown, which following the extra point, gave the Falcons a 14-7 lead.
"It's rare to have a sack, fumble and return for a touchdown, an onside kick recovered against you and to lose the giveaway/takeaway battle and still come out with the win," Payton said. "Clearly there are things that we need to work on and clean up, but in the end the victory is the most important thing I take out of the game."
The Saints picked up a key third down on their next drive when Brees hit a crossing Marques Colston for a gain of 10 yards. Thomas then picked up six yards on the final play of the first quarter. Bell churned out a hard five-yard run and a first down. Two plays later Brees connected with Shockey for a gain of 27 yards, but Brees was sacked on a blindside hit by Babineaux for a seven-yard loss to the Falcons' 39 on first down. The Saints called their first time out of the first half and Brees came out and found TE Dave Thomas for a gain of 15 yards, which brought up a third-and-one from the Atlanta 23. Bell, despite encountering a congested line of scrimmage, kept hammering away at the right side of the Saints' offensive line and found a hole big enough for a two-yard gain and a first down. Bell then came right back and picked up a hard-earned three yards to the Atlanta 18 and on a second-down and seven, Brees dropped back and found Colston in single coverage in the end zone and fired a high pass into the end zone for Colston's sixth touchdown of the season and after Carney's extra point the score was tied at 14-14.
Atlanta began their third drive at their own 30 and Ryan found Roddy White on a quick slant for a gain of 16 yards. On the tackle Saints CB Tracy Porter was accidentally nicked by Saints FS Darren Sharper who was coming in to stop White from turning up the field. Turner then picked up three yards and on second down got around the right side of the Falcons line for a gain of 37 yards to the Saints' 22. Turner picked up another yard through the middle and a second down completion from Ryan to former Saint RB Aaron Stecker picked up five yards to the 15. A third down pass intended for White in the flat could not be brought in by the lanky Ohio State product as fellow Buckeye Malcolm Jenkins closed in quickly. Elam came in to try to convert the excellent field position into a field goal, but his 34-yard effort smacked off the left upright and fell to the turf. It was the first time this season that the Saints witnessed an opposing team's field goal kicker not convert a field goal (had been nine-of-nine).
The Saints started at their own 24 and picked up a seven-yard completion from Brees to Shockey on first down and then Pierre Thomas snuck off the left side of the line, picking up a huge block by reserve TE Dave Thomas for a gain of 30 yards to the Atlanta 39. Pierre Thomas continued his success with a five-yard carry on first down and Brees, clearly in rhythm, found WR Lance Moore for a gain of seven yards and a first down. Thomas then was stopped for a loss of one-yard and WR Devery Henderson was docked for a pass interference call that cost the Saints 10 yards. On second down Brees appeared to find Henderson sneaking down the sideline, but a spectacular leaping interception by CB Brent Grimes ended the Saints' drive and gave the Falcons possession at their own 18 with 3:59 left in the first half.
Turner worked into the middle for a gain of four yards on first down and DT Will Smith/Kendrick Clancy.aspx">Kendrick Clancy, who returned to action after a few weeks on the inactive list, pressured Ryan into throwing the ball away on second down. On third down CB Jabari Greer broke in front of Roddy White and knocked Ryan's pass away, forcing the Falcons to punt away to the Saints.
New Orleans, after a holding infraction on the punt return were penalized, began their drive at their own 20 with 2:46 and two timeouts remaining, plus the two minute warning. On first down Brees found Colston across the middle of the field for a gain of 15 yards to the 35. On the ensuing first down Brees hit Bush out of the backfield for a gain of seven yards as Bush took on the defensive back by lowering his shoulder. The Saints called timeout their second timeout with 2:02 left and the ball on 42. Brees watched the Falcons re-adjust at the line of scrimmage into a blitz look and re-adjusted the Saints' protection scheme, with Bush picking up a blitzing cornerback and Brees was able to sit in the pocket and loft a pass deep down the middle of the field for a 30-yard completion to a sliding Robert Meachem at the Atlanta 28. The two-minute warning was signaled with 1:56 left in the first half. Brees dropped back and found Henderson down the near sideline for what looked like a 24-yard spectacular catch, getting a foot and an elbow down at the four. The Saints quickly lined up to run a play but the officials signaled that they wanted to review the play to see if Henderson indeed had possession. The officials confirmed the ruling of a reception after the video replay and with 1:49 on the clock. Pierre Thomas picked up three yards to the Atlanta one and on the next play, Brees gave a hard handoff fake and coolly flipped the ball to Bush who was in single coverage with a linebacker and jogged into the end zone. Carney booted the extra point but TE Darnell Dinkins was flagged for a holding call and Carney had to move back ten yards to connect on the extra point that gave the Saints their first lead of the night, 21-14, with 1:05 remaining in the half.
Atlanta attempted to mount a late half rally, but after a short completion and a timeout, Ryan was victimized by a ball-hawking Greer, who stepped in front of a pass intended for White and raced 48 yards into the end zone for a touchdown. It was Greer's first touchdown as a Saints (the 16th different Saint to score a touchdown this season) for his third career touchdown via interception return that gave the Saints a 28-14 lead. It was fifth interception returned by the Saints this season, which tied the team-record from most interceptions returned by the Saints for a touchdown in a season (1998).
The stunned Falcons received a good kickoff return to their 34 but Ryan's first two passes missed their mark. Ryan found Gonzalez over the middle on third down for a gain of 15 to their own 49 with :21 left. Ryan then found TE Justin Pelle for a short gain of six yards to the 47 with :15 left and one timeout remaining. Ryan was able to find Gonzalez over the middle in single coverage with the Saints' safeties playing deep and for a gain of 14 yards. Atlanta attempted a 51-yard field goal by Elam, but the field goal was never on-line and missed short and to the left to end the first half.
Courtney Roby returned the kickoff of the second half 30 yards to the Saints' 28 to begin the second half of play. A first down pass attempt to Henderson fell incomplete and a second down run by Thomas managed two yards and a third down holding call in the Saints was declined after Brees' pass attempt was incomplete and P Thomas Morstead was called upon for his first punt of the game and he booted a 47-yard punt that was field by Eric Weems, who returned the punt nine yards to the Atlanta 32.
DE Charles Grant was flagged for an offsides call on first down, giving the Falcons a free five yards and a few plays later Ryan dropped back and found White down the Falcons' sideline for a 68-yard touchdown that pulled the Falcons to within a touchdown, 28-21.
New Orleans started at their own 38 after a 35-yard kickoff return by Roby. Bell was stopped after a short gain on first down, then Brees hit Colston for a gain of six yards to 44 and the Saints converted their first third down of the second half on an eight-yard strike to Shockey, which took the ball into Falcons' territory. Bell rocketed off the right side of the line for a gain of five yards. Brees then rolled out and hit Meachem for a gain of 17-yards as the third-year wide out from Tennessee made a tip-toe grab along the sideline. Bell then pounded his way to seven yards on first down to the 19, put two nice passes defensed by the Falcons resulted incompletions and Carney trotted on to try a 37-yard field goal, which he narrowly pushed right to the right and the Falcons took over at their own 28 with 8:29 left in the third quarter.
Ryan hit White for a gain of 19 yards on the first play and then Turner picked up five yards and into New Orleans territory to the 48. LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar stopped Turner for no gain on second down and the Superdome crowd roared to life on third down, with Sharper blitzing from his safety spot and forcing Ryan to throw off target as Greer had White blanketed across the middle and forced the Falcons to punt, which Bush fair caught at the Saints' 16.
New Orleans, clutching to a 28-21 lead with 6:21 remaining in the third quarter, started off with Brees scrambling for a gain of four yards on first down after his deep threats both were double covered. Thomas slammed through a hole for a gain of five yards on second down, then converted the third down into a first down with a three-yard run inside the tackles. DT Jonathan Babineaux needed to be helped from the field after an official's time out and Bell was promptly stopped for a one-yard loss. The aggressive Falcons pass rush was caught by a quick screen to Thomas, who managed eight yards to the Saints' 35, but Brees' pass on third down was short of target Reggie Bush and Morstead came on and hit a 42-yard punt that Weems fair caught at the Falcons' 23. Turner bulled his way off the left side of the line for a gain on nine yards on first down and converted it into a first down with a two-yard gain to the 34. DE Will Smith put a jarring sack on Ryan with a sack of three yards on first down but Ryan dropped back and hung in the pocket and found Jenkins for a 29-yard gain to the Saints' 40. Greer forced Ryan to step out of bounds after a three-yard scramble on first down and on the final play of the third quarter Turner got around the edge for a gain of eight yards to the New Orleans 29.
Ryan tried to find Gonzalez down the sideline but was tightly covered by Porter. Turner found five yards over left guard before Scott Shanle could bring him down. On third-and-five from the 24 the Falcons tried an end around to Weems but Greer pushed him out of bounds four yards shy. The Falcons went for it on fourth down and converted it with an 11-yard completion to Gonzalez. Turner then picked up three yards to the Saints' seven on first down. A false start penalty on left tackle Sam Baker cost the Falcons five yards back to the 14 on second down, which Ryan and Stecker picked back up with a seven-yard completion on second down to the seven. Ryan appeared to hit a diving White in the back of the end zone, but the Saints' Sean Payton quickly challenged the ruling, claiming White did not have possession of the ball. Following the official's review the call was overturned and the Falcons faced a fourth-and-fourth from the seven. The Falcons, who earlier passed on an intermediate field goal, elected to try a 25-yard field goal attempt by Elam, which he converted to pull the Falcons to within four points, 28-24, with 11:33 left in the game.
New Orleans started at their own 25 and picked up an eight-yard completion from Brees to Henderson on first down and then garnered a yard with a carry by Bell to the Saints' 34. Thomas tried the right side of the line and appeared to get the first down, but lost control of the football as he crossed the 35, which S Erik Coleman somehow came up with after a scrum of players wrestled for the loose football. Payton challenged the ruling, saying that Thomas's right knee was down, but after the official review the Falcons were awarded possession of the football at the Saints' 35 yard-line with an even 10:00 left on the clock.
Turner picked up 24 yards on first down, breaking a host of tackles along the way to the Saints' 11. Turner then picked up a yard on first down to the ten. On second-and-nine Ryan attempted to hit Gonzalez in the flat but LB Jonathan Vilma tipped Ryan's pass and Porter undercut the route, intercepting the ball at the Saints' one and managing to return the ball 18 yards to the Atlanta 19 before being stopped by FB Ovie Mughelli.
Bell picked up five yards on first down. Brees's pass on second down was thrown into coverage but fell incomplete as he threw back across his body on a scramble. His third down pass was incomplete but his intended target, Bush, was held by LB Mike Peterson for a five -yard penalty and an automatic first down. Bell then picked up two yards and on second down Brees audibled out of his play and instead went deep, finding Colston for a leaping 29-yard grab to Atlanta 40 before he was upended. Bell picked up four more yards and Brees went right back to the air and found Shockey, who made a sensational 17-yard leaping reception to the Atlanta 19. Thomas jammed it into the middle of the Falcons' defensive front with a four yard gain to the 15 and then Brees hit Colston over the middle for a seven yard gain and a first down to the Falcons' eight. A first down carry by Bell picked up one-yard to the seven and the Falcons called their first timeout of the second half with 3:14 left in the contest. Brees then rolled out and found Henderson on a quick out for a gain of six yards to the one before being driven out of bounds by a big hit by CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta called their second timeout of the half with the ball on the one, with 3:09 left in the game, and Brees found Pierre Thomas out of the backfield after extra tight end Zach Strief picked up a Falcons defensive back, regardless Thomas, atoning for his earlier fumble, somersaulted into the end zone, giving the Saints a 35-24 lead with 3:03 left in the game.
The Saints' crowd, which reined their loudest ovations of the night down on their home team, cheered wildly as the Saints' defense took the field with the intent of stopping the Falcons from putting a mark in the Saints' loss column, witnessed the Saints' defense rush Ryan and force him to throw underneath to his targets. The Falcons advanced the ball to their 47 yard-line at the two minute and avoided a possible game icing scare when Will Smith grabbed hold of Ryan's throwing arm and hung on as Ryan's arm went forward. The Falcons challenged the call, saying it was an incompletion, and kept possession of the ball. FS Darren Sharper broke up a pass play on second down with a big hit on White along the boundary and a third pass attempt for Jenkins was mistimed after Saints' pressure. The Saints dropped eight into coverage on a fourth down and Ryan's pass sailed over the head of Jenkins and the Saints took over possession of the ball on downs with just under two minutes to go in the game.
The Saints, unable to run the clock out because Atlanta had a time out remaining, ran Bell up the middle for no gain. On the play a defensive player appeared to ricochet back into C Jonathan Goodwin, who remained down on the field of play and the Saints were charged with their second timeout with 1:37 left in the game. Bell once again hammered the ball into the line but was unable to gain a yard and the Falcons called their final timeout. Bell was stripped of the football after it appeared he was down on the ground at the Falcons' 46, which was forced and recovered by LB Coy Wire.
Ryan dropped back and found Gonzalez for a gain of 14 yards to the Saints' 39. His next pass to Jenkins was incomplete by the officials on the field but reviewed by the officials with :54 left in the game, but the call was overturned by the officials after the replay and the Falcons were awarded the 16-yard completion to the Saints' 23. Ryan was then promptly sacked by DT Anthony Hargrove, who beat his blocker and snared the quarterback for a three-yard loss. Ryan then spiked the ball to stop the clock and his third down check down route to RB Verron Hayes picked up four yards. The Falcons sent on Elam to try a 40-yard field goal, which he connected on, and closed the scoring to 35-27 with :35 left.
Atlanta then tried an onside kick against the Saints' "hands team," with P Michael Koenen attempting the onside kick. TE David Thomas came up to try to make a play on the onside kick but it scooted away from him and was recovered by Wire at the 37.
Ryan then hit Jenkins for a 14-yard gain and came up to spike the ball at the 49 with :11. Ryan tried a "Hail Mary" but Sharper leaped up and intercepted the Saints' 15th pass of the season, and his seventh pick off of the season.
Notes: Prior to the game the Saints held Military Appreciation Night, which featured a satellite link with troops from the Gulf South talking to the Saints fans back home in the Superdome. An ensemble of active military personnel unveiled a 25-yard wide American flag prior to the ceremony… legendary rocker Lenny Kravitz and members of his band were on the Saints' sideline before the game. Kravitz was a headline act at the recently concluded, and very successful, VooDooFest… tonight's paid attendance was 70,088…Payton said WR Lance Moore left the game with a bruised shin and C Jonathan Goodwin suffered a knee contusion, "which is a good thing considering what it could have been."