The Atlanta Falcons couldn’t do anything offensively.
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Not to worry. The defense left Drew Brees with egg on his face.
Brees threw five interceptions for the first time in his career and, rubbing salt in the wound, the Falcons also ended his NFL-record streak of touchdown passes. The result was a 23-13 victory Thursday night that pushed Atlanta to the brink of a division championship and might have finished off the Saints’ fading playoff hopes.
The Falcons (11-1) built an early 17-0 lead, then struggled to move the ball. They finished with 283 yards, by far the lowest total allowed this season by a Saints defense that was on pace to give up the most yards in NFL history.
But William Moore had two interceptions, and Thomas DeCoud, Sean Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux had one pick apiece. Another by Corey Peters didn’t count because of a penalty.
”That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me, so that’s extremely disappointing,” Brees said. ”I pride myself on being a good decision-maker and not someone who will be a detriment to the game.”
The Falcons will clinch the NFC South with a month to go if Tampa Bay loses at Denver on Sunday. The Saints (5-7) need to win out to have any chance, and even that might not be enough to get the defending division champs back to the playoffs.
”It looks pretty bleak right now,” interim coach Joe Vitt said.
Brees had thrown a touchdown pass in 54 consecutive games, breaking Johnny Unitas’ long-standing record earlier this season. There was an apparent scoring pass to Darren Sproles late in the first half, but it was nullified by a penalty.
”I didn’t realize that until we walked off the field,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. ”That’s an unbelievable streak. Drew Brees is an outstanding quarterback. The way the defense played tonight speaks volumes. The guys had gone out there and thrown touchdown after touchdown game after game after game.”
After Sproles’ TD was wiped off the board, Brees made another huge mistake with New Orleans inside the Atlanta 10, allowing the clock to run out in the first half without at least attempting a field goal.
Four days earlier, Brees had two passes picked off and returned for touchdowns in a loss to San Francisco.
This one was even worse. He finished 28 of 50 for 341 yards but had a rating of just 37.6, the third-lowest off his career.
”I feel we have one of the best secondaries in the NFL,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said, ”and I think we came out and showed that.”
When the Saints arrived in Atlanta, their bus was pelted by eggs at the airport, epitomizing the long rivalry between the teams. New Orleans had dominated in recent years, winning four in a row and 11 of 13.
This time, Michael Turner scored on Atlanta’s opening possession, Tony Gonzalez hauled in a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan, and Matt Bryant booted three field goals, including a 55-yarder.
The defense did the rest.
”We got the monkey off our back,” DeCoud said.
After winning so many close games, the Falcons started this one as if they were intent on routing the only team to beat them this season. New Orleans knocked off Atlanta 31-27 at the Superdome on Nov. 11, the bright spot in a tumultuous year that was marred by a bounty scandal and a season-long suspension for coach Sean Payton.
Ryan completed a pass on the first play from scrimmage before turning it over to a running game that has struggled most of the season. Turner burst around right end for a 35-yard gain. Jacquizz Rodgers broke off two straight 14-yard gains. Finally, it was Turner going in standing from 3 yards out, giving Atlanta a quick 7-0 lead.
That was Turner’s 58th touchdown in five seasons with the Falcons, breaking the team record he had shared with Terance Mathis.
Atlanta struck again in the opening minute of the second period. Julio Jones hauled in an 18-yard throw from Ryan, setting up a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez in the back of the end zone. He beat former teammate Curtis Lofton; maybe as a sign of respect, Gonzo just flipped the ball over the crossbar instead of his customary basketball dunk.
Brees’ second interception, this one a sloppy pass behind running Chris Ivory that deflected into the arms of Weatherspoon, set up Bryant’s 45-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead.
Then, suddenly, the game completely changed.
For the rest of the second quarter and most of the third, the Saints totally dominated. Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard run, capping an 11-play, 80-yard drive, and New Orleans should have tacked on more points at the end of the half. Brees made a rookie-like mistake with 12 seconds remaining, dumping a pass over the middle to Sproles with no timeouts. He was wrapped up at the Atlanta 3 and the clock ran out before the Saints could spike the ball.
”Honestly, I thought we had more time than we did,” Brees said. ”The last time I remember, we had 17 seconds. … But it was down to 7 when I looked up after the completion. That wasn’t enough time to get the spike. That’s on me.”
But New Orleans got the ball to start the second half, and Brees went back to work. This time, he made a couple of nifty moves to avoid sacks, completing six passes on an 83-yard drive consuming 15 plays and more than 6 1/2 minutes. But the Falcons held again, forcing Garrett Hartley to boot a 21-yard field goal that cut it to 17-10.
Hartley connected again from much farther out on the Saints’ next possession, a 52-yarder that brought New Orleans even closer.
The Falcons, meanwhile, failed to pick up a first down on five straight possessions, a stretch in which the Saints had a 289-30 lead in total yards and a staggering 18 first downs.
But the Atlanta defense kept coming through when it counted.
Late in the third, Brees rolled to his right and threw over the middle. Moore stepped in front of the receiver and returned it to the New Orleans 16. Ryan connected on first-down throws to Gonzalez and Roddy White to set up Bryant for a 29-yarder that extended the lead back to a touchdown.
NOTES: Brees had two previous games with four interceptions. … This was Brees’ lowest-rated game since joining the Saints in 2006. With San Diego, he turned in a 35.7 at Washington in 2005 and a 26.8 at Chicago in 2003. … Turner ran 12 times for 83 yards. … Lance Moore of the Saints hauled in 11 passes for 123 yards.