ATLANTA, Ga. — Like most of the battles with the New Orleans Saints in the recent history of the rivalry, the Falcons gave them a fight, but came up short.
The Falcons’ potential game-winning drive was derailed by poor pass protection, and the Saints hung on to prevail 17-13 before 70,422 fans Thursday night in a spirited battle at the Georgia Dome.
“We just stalled out,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “That’s the disappointing part on the last drive.” The Saints improved to 9-2, while the Falcons, who lost their fifth consecutive game, slipped to 2-9. The Falcons officially were eliminated from contention to repeat as NFC South champs.
“It’s frustrating,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “I’ll tell you what, the enthusiasm was there. The fight was there.” Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 23 of 33 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 100 yards and had a 44-yard touchdown.
Ryan completed 30 of 39 passes, including one with five seconds left that led to an unsuccessful scramble play. He passed for 292 yards.
Since 2008, nine of the 12 games between the two teams have been decided by one-score.
“We are two good football teams that like competing against each other,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “For some reason or another, they always seem to come down to the last minute. We just have to find a way to win against this team.” The Falcons will lament a blown coverage by safety William Moore that resulted in a touchdown, a third-quarter fumble by wide receiver Darius Johnson in the red zone and a missed 52-yard field-goal attempt by Matt Bryant.
Behind two touchdown passes from Brees, the Saints held a 14-13 halftime lead.
The Falcons came out strong to start the game.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters got things started with a tackle of Saints running back Mark Ingram for no gain. Linebacker Paul Worrilow dropped running back Pierre Thomas for a 3-yard loss on second down.
On third-and-13, the Falcons went with one of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s dime alignments, as six defensive backs and two linebackers dropped back to protect the 30-yard line.
The Falcons rushed only three.
Brees had time to pass, but didn’t want to force the ball down the field and settled for a check-down rout. Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, who later left with a thigh injury and return, tackled tight end Jimmy Graham for 6-yard gain.
The Falcons defense made a statement with a three-and-out. After hemorrhaging 900 yards over the past two games, they were ready for the Saints.
The offense scored a touchdown on their opening drive for just the third time this season.
The key play of the 10-play, 76-yard touchdown was a 22-yard pass to running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who picked up a nice block from Johnson, on third-and-3 from New Orleans’ 31.
After a 3-yard run by Rodgers, Ryan hit Johnson on an inside cut route and he appeared to score. After a review, Johnson’s left knee was deemed down at the 1. Steven Jackson scored with a leap over the top of the pile. Bryant’s extra point made the score 7-0.
The Saints answered with a powerful 15-play, 78-yard touchdown drive.
The defense did a good job of pushing the Saints to third downs, but the Saints converted five times, including a touchdown pass from Brees to Benjamin Watson on third-and-1. The extra point made the score 7-7.
The defenses took control in the third quarter.
The Saints mustered a big-play when Brees found Graham open in the middle of the field on third-and-5 from their 38. He rumbled through the defense, and it took several defenders to force him out of bounds at the Falcons’ 27. The drive stalled, and Garrett Hartley added a 41-yard field goal.