Saints hold off Falcons for playoff berth

With the New Orleans Saints on the ropes inside the Georgia Dome, a group of confident Atlanta Falcons fans began a mocking chant of “We dat!"

Not quite.

The team known for its “Who Dat? chant isn’t ready to cede the Lombardi Trophy it won last year. That became evident when New Orleans rallied for a 17-14 victory over a Falcons squad that entered with the NFC’s best record at 12-2.

“We’re still trying to hold our crown and protect it,” Saints free safety Darren Sharper said afterward. “Everybody is talking about these guys. They’re a good team. You have to give them respect. But people forgot that you don’t win world championships easily. We’ve been in this position before and we knew how to keep fighting.”

Atlanta is still expected to land the blow that will win the NFC South title and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs while relegating the Saints (11-4) to a wild-card spot. All the Falcons must do is win at home Sunday against Carolina, the team with the NFL’s worst record at 2-13.

The Saints, though, are now assured a playoff spot. And judging by Monday night, this isn’t a team that Atlanta should want to face again in the postseason, despite its gaudy home record under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.

“We felt we could win here,” said Saints linebacker Jon Vilma, whose team avenged a Week 3 overtime home loss to the Falcons. “For us to come out here and do it, it’s really more of a statement for the rest of America to see us come out here and win.”

Asked what that statement is, Vilma smiled and said, “We’re the Saints, baby! We’re the defending Super Bowl champs!”

That reminder hit home in the fourth quarter.

Drew Brees had just thrown his second interception in a seven-play span. The first was returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis, giving Atlanta a 14-10 lead. The second also could have gone for a score had Brees not tackled John Abraham shortly after the Falcons defensive end snared the pass he tipped into the air.

“If he doesn’t make that tackle, I don’t know,” Sharper admitted. “It’s going to be tough for us to come back.”

But they did.

The resurgence was triggered by a stingy defense that already had disrupted Atlanta’s passing game and stuffed running back Michael Turner, who also had lost a fumble near the goal-line in the third quarter. Atlanta reached the Saints 42-yard line before being forced to punt, giving Brees a chance for redemption.

“I was just telling myself, ‘Give us another chance,’” Brees said.

He took advantage of the opportunity, orchestrating a 13-play, 90-yard drive capped by a six-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham.

“You can’t shake (Brees) regardless of throwing an interception and all that,” Sharper said. “We knew once he did that, it made him drive even more to make a play. He did.”

Atlanta’s offense couldn’t. Another drive stalled near midfield, prompting Falcons coach Mike Smith to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-six. It was the last time a Falcons offense known for last-minute heroics would touch the football. New Orleans ran out the final 2:44, leading to a postgame celebration where some Saints players danced and posed for photographs. The latter is becoming a Saints tradition after big victories.

“We wanted to take a picture and keep the memories,” Vilma said.

Consider it another snapshot in anything but a picture-perfect season.

New Orleans hasn’t dominated in the same fashion as last season when jumping to a 13-0 record. The 2010 Saints opened 4-3 with losses to inferior opposition like Arizona and Cleveland. As the Saints sputtered, Atlanta built its division lead.

But while other frontrunners like the Falcons and New England (13-2) have garnered heavy media attention, the Saints have quietly salvaged their season.

“It’s been a tough season at times,” Brees said. “We’ve had to fight through a lot of adversity. We’ve had quite a few guys get banged up and we had to go into games with young players.

“We just want to be playing our best football going into the playoffs. Here we are having won seven of eight. Hopefully, we can continue that roll next week.”

By defeating Tampa Bay at home on Sunday, the Saints would win the division if Atlanta should get upset. The Saints could even claim the NFC’s No. 1 seed if Philadelphia and Chicago lose their remaining games.

But the more likely playoff path New Orleans will have to take is on the road as a wild-card. That’s a trip Brees doesn’t mind taking.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing at home or on the road,” Brees said. “I’ll take these guys anywhere and play anybody any time. I feel like we’re battle-tested and playing with a lot of confidence. We trust one another. There’s no task we feel we can’t accomplish.”

Spoken with the confidence of a star whose team really could be all "dat" when the games matter most.