The Saints clinched a playoff spot with a gutsy, hard-fought win over the Falcons on Monday Night Football. Gregg Williams' defense provided an excellent performance, coming up with two absolutely crucial turnovers and keeping the Saints in the game despite a disastrous late-game turn.
The Saints pitched a second half shutout of the Falcons at home, delivering Matt Ryan his first home loss since 2008, only his second loss ever in the Georgia Dome. In a game when the Saints want to put their foot down and start the final run at defending their Super Bowl title, they did, finishing strong and running 20 of the game's final 24 plays, controlling the clock for 12:54 of the final quarter.
A short slant strike touchdown pass from Drew Brees to star rookie tight end Jimmy Graham won the game, giving the lead back to the Saints with 3:28 to go. Graham started the game in place of Shockey as the Saints have clearly replaced one former U of Miami tight end for another. Graham dunked the football over the goalposts in celebration of his score, a punctuation similar to another great tight end on the field, Tony Gonzales.
A first ballot Hall of Famer five years after he retires, Gonzales is the most productive player at his position in history, but was shown up by the fair-haired rookie Graham. Gonzales finished with two catches for 12 yards and was a non-factor.
Falcons WR Roddy White, who called a lot of attention to himself with some inflammatory anti-New Orleans and anti-Saints tweets during the week, was held to three catches, none in the second half, by a fast Saints defense. After the game, White lamented: "We had too many three and outs and we can't have that. We blew it. We'll go back to the drawing board."
The Saints ended a scoreless beginning to the game when Garret Hartley continued his hot streak with a 51-yard connection with 1:06 left in the first quarter. Neither team got much traction in the first quarter, with the Saints moving into long field goal range with completions of eight yards to Reggie Bush, eight yards to Robert Meachem and 16 yards to Lance Moore. Pierre Thomas started at runningback in the place of the injured Chris Ivory, but found only 8 yards on six first quarter touches.
But in the second quarter, the Saints defense made the first of their many key plays. The always-alert Jonathan Vilma punched through the line and pounced on a shotgun formation ball that C Todd McClure had poorly snapped. The ball skidded just a few feet, and Vilma out-wrestled Jason Snelling for the recovery at the Falcon 38.
Brees would make sure the Saints capitalize, running a quick-snap no huddle to catch the Falcons off guard that allowed a 10-yard completion to Graham and then a 16-yard run off the left side by Thomas down to the Atlanta two yard line. Thomas walked in the next play for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead, his first touchdown since the season opener against the Vikings, only his second of the season.
Matt Ryan would respond with the best drive of the Falcons' night, getting the Atlanta offense engaged if only temporarily. Michael Turner triggered the awakening by breaking a few Saint tackles and running for a 27-yard gain off right tackle, a run that would account for more than half of his 48 yards rushing on the night.
A breakout pass to RB Jason Snelling who broke free for 19 yards moved the Falcons past the Saint 45 for the first time with 9:28 left in the half. Then a series of calls would go against the Saints. DT Anthony Hargrove was called for illegal hands to the face, giving the Falcons a first down at the Saint 21. At the end of a scramble by a sliding Ryan, LB Marvin Mitchell thudded the quarterback solidly after his slide at hit the ground. Mitchell himself was already on the ground trying to slow, but he was called for unnecessary roughness, moving the chains to the Saint 7.
On the next play, DE Will Smith powered through a double team and drew an obvious holding penalty, but his hand glanced off Ryan's facemask, drawing an offsetting roughing the quarterback call. The roughing penalty was by the book, but was clearly incidental. Ryan fired a pass incomplete into the end zone despite slipping past Smith, and on the next play from the 7 he hit a wide-open Roddy White. CB Jabari Greer was caught flat-footed and was beaten badly to the inside by White.
Up 10-7, the Saints would go three-and-out on the next drive, but the Falcons' drive would be stalled by an obvious offensive pass interference penalty against WR Michael Jenkins, who leveled Greer in his route and caught a 17-yard pass.
The Saints got the ball back with 4:16 left in the half and ran off almost all the remaining time. A near-constant pass rush on Brees finally got to him with a points-preventing sack with :43 left. The Saints would punt, and the Falcons kneeled away the remaining seconds of the half, content to enter the game down by three.
The Falcons got the second half kickoff and went on their last best drive of the game. They converted a 3rd and five to keep it alive, only their second of three third down conversions of the night, then picked up 16 on a big completion to Michael Jenkins. CB Tracy Porter played a solid game despite two plays later in this drive, when he would be called for defensive pass interference on consecutive plays. The first moved the Falcons 15 yards to the Saint 36 and was a questionable call, but the second pass interference penalty was in the end zone, obvious and - in hindsight - a brilliant move.
Fifty yards gained off flags against Porter moved the Falcons to the Saint 1, when Gregg Williams' defense made its biggest play of the night. After stuffing Turner on his first run up the middle, Jeff Charleston lead the way to stuffing Turner on second as well, only this time Charleston's left arm squeezed the ball loose. Marvin Mitchell recovered the ball at the Saint two yard line to snuff out Matt Ryan's last best scoring opportunity.
The Saints picked up a first down on a laser-like throw to Marques Colston over the middle, but had to punt from their own territory. A 55-yard blast from Thomas Morstead and a great roll reversed the game of field position, sending the Falcons back to their own 23 yard line. Ryan would fire incomplete for Roddy White on two deep passes, the only two balls thrown White's way in the final 37:31 of the game, and the Falcons would punt.
Up 10-7 near the end of the third quarter, Brees played aggressively and wanted to bury the Falcons. While being sacked, Brees flipped the ball ill-advisedly to Pierre Thomas behind him. Thomas didn't expect the ball and bobbled it, but managed to fight his way back to the line of scrimmage for no gain, recovering from what could have been a big loss or worse. The Saints would punt and the Falcons would go three-and-out at the end of the third quarter.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, that same aggressive improvisation would come back to bite Brees. With an outlet to his left in Reggie Bush, the pass rush once again got Brees running backwards and he attempted to back-hand the ball to Bush. The ball went only about half as far as it needed to - and right into the hands of DE Chauncey Davis, who ran unmolested 26 yards to the end zone to give the thunderous home crowd a 14-10 lead. Pinned under a defender, Brees slammed his hands to the turf as Davis ran past him.
Getting the ball back, Brees quieted the crowd with a 25-yard strike on a slant-go route to Robert Meachem. A receiver screen to Devery Henderson gained 11 and Thomas picked up 7 on a rush up the middle before the unthinkable happened again. Brees had a screen pass tipped up into the air by a leaping John Abraham, and Abraham out-positioned to catch the deflection. Give Brees credit for making a textbook waist tackle on Abraham to save another pick-six touchdown.
Once again, the Saints defense would stonewall Matt Ryan, preventing him from cashing in on Brees' second mistake. On 3rd and long, Malcolm Jenkins went sky-high to slap away a completion to Harry Douglas, and the Falcons punted again with 10:41 left in the game.
Pinned at his own 10, Brees set out to atone for his mistakes, having been kept within striking distance by a stout defense. Back to back 18 and 12 yard completions to Lance Moore moved Brees to his own 39, and an end-around run by Devery Henderson picked up another first down into Falcon territory. Henderson, a former runningback at LSU had as many carries as Saint runningbacks not named Pierre Thomas, who would finish with a respectable 63 yards on 19 carries to help balance an offense.
A short third-down conversion pass to Robert Meachem, who led all receivers with 10 catches and 101 yards, set up first down at the Falcon 35. An short outlet pass by Brees would be turned into a big gain by Thomas, who spun away from tacklers for a 22-yard gain though he took a vicious headshot at the end of the run. On the next play, Brees threw across the field to Reggie Bush, who was a shoestring tackle away from racing to the corner of the end zone. Two plays later, Brees hit a diving Graham for the game's winning score.
The touchdown was huge. Brees had somehow bounced back to the take the lead despite interceptions on back to back drives in the final quarter. A stout defense kept the Saints in this game, and Sean Payton and Brees got a lot of help from a motivated Pierre Thomas to find just enough room in a tight Falcons defense.
Down by 3 in his own house, Ryan got the ball back with 3:19 left and scrambled for a 20-yard gain, but then fired incomplete on third and six. The Falcons punted with 2:57 left on the clock, and Ryan left the game for good having run only four snaps in the final quarter. The decision to punt there, from his own 43 yard line, was a difficult decision likely to bother Falcons coach Mike Smith this week.
The Saints ran out the final time with hard running by Pierre Thomas, who returned to his familiar role as closer for the Saints offense. Thomas plunged over the line for a third down conversion with 1:36 left, the Falcons having burned their timeouts trying to save clock. Brees kneeled twice to seal the game and a Saints playoff birth.
Notes: Malcolm Jenkins appeared to be injured on the Falcons' final kickoff return... Pierre Thomas took a hard hit and was briefly replaced by Julius Jones, but he returned to close out the game. Payton didn't offer an injury update after the game...