A record-breaking, national spotlight night for the Saints will go down as one of the best in franchise history. Aside from blowing out their nemesis and claiming the NFC South division crown, Drew Brees cemented his Hall of Fame ballot by breaking Dan Marino's single-season passing record.
The 45-16 victory ended with Brees tossing a late run-up-the-score touchdown to Darren Sproles, a fact not likely to be ignored by the Falcons in a possible playoff rematch in 12 days. That score broke Dan Marino's 27-year old single-season passing record with his final pass of the night, the last of 307 yards on the night that put him at 5,069 on the season with a game to play.
Much like their first matchup, an overtime thriller that ended in Saint victory, the Saints were able to beat the Falcons consistently with Marques Colston, who now has 15 catches for 194 yards and a score against Atlanta this season. Falcons QB Matt Ryan was also beaten soundly by the Saints on crucial 4th down attempts in this game as well. After a controversial failed 4th down attempt in overtime on November 13, the Falcons went for and failed two forth down attempts in the fourth quarter, with Ryan throwing incomplete on both.
But unlike their previous matchup, the Saints were able to pound the run game against Atlanta. After 41 yards on the ground by Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles in November, tonight the Saints put up 155 yards with Sproles, Thomas and Chris Ivory, and it was Thomas' early tough running and touchdown push that put the Saints on the board.
It was also the fourth touchdown pass on the night for Drew Brees, who tossed scores to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Robert Meachem and Sproles as the Saints routed the rival Falcons on Monday Night Football. The win clinched the NFC South divisional title for the 12-3 Saints, though it may be premature to claim a season sweep of Atlanta - many playoff scenarios have the Falcons returning to New Orleans in 12 days in the wildcard playoff round.
Thomas helped respond to the Falcons' impressive opening drive that stalled at the Saint 16 and drew a field goal. The drive opened with a bomb to Lance Moore for 38 yards, but included Thomas ripping off runs of 12 and 8 yards, each right up the middle. Thomas capped the eight play, 79-yard drive with a four yard pile-driving rush up the middle.
After the score, Thomas pulled out a golden Christmas bow, tried in vain to attach it to the football as a present, then moved to the end zone seating where he gave a belated Christmas present to his biggest fan - his Saints memorabilia-bespeckled mother, Greta Jo Thomas.
CORRECTION: Earlier news reports were incorrect: it was not Thomas' mother who received the ball, but Thomas' real estate agent.
The celebration drew a penalty - for using the football as a prop - thanks to the Terrell Owens rule about introducing foreign objects to the field, but was more reminiscent of Joe Horn's cell phone touchdown celebration.
Ryan to Julio Jones responded and only briefly quieted the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd, as Ryan hit the rookie from Alabama for a 25-yard gain that set up a 21-yard catch for a score and the 10-7 lead. Ryan's pass was perfectly over the outstretched hand of strong safety Roman Harper and beat Jonathan Vilma to the ball at the goal line.
The Falcons led 10-7 in the second half with the Saints driving. Brees hit Jimmy Graham for 17 on the drive, then got runs of 7 and 9 yards by Sproles and Ivory. Brees to Colston bailed the Saints out of 3rd and 12, then a nine yard catch by Colston drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on Falcons LB Curtis Lofton, who led with the helmet on the tackle. Three plays later on 3rd and 4, Brees hit Colston, who turned quickly and submarined under two defenders diving across the goal line. Up 14-10 with 12:36 left in the half, the Saints offense wasn't done scoring.
The Falcons were stopped on the next drive, with Malcolm Jenkins delivering one of several monstrous hits on veteran tight end Reggie Kelly, who was slow to get up.
Brees was sacked for an eight yard loss on the next play after the punt when DT Vance walker beat RG Jahri Evans inside. But Brees used completions to Henderson and Colston to recover the first down. After some early protection issues, the Saints would finish the game having roundly shut down the Falcons' pass rush. Four plays later, the Saints faced a 1st and 20 after a holding penalty against Zach Strief, but the arm of Brees bailed the offense out again. Passes of 13 and 23 to Sproles and Colston picked up the yardage and put the Saints back in the Falcon red zone.
On 3rd and 6 from the Falcon 15, a defensive holding call in the end zone gave the Saints a first down. Brees fired over the middle for Jimmy Graham in traffic with three defenders. Graham went up high but had the ball jarred loose.
Falcons S William Moore batted the ball back and into the air as he went out of bounds, where Dominque Franks caught the carom and kneeled in the end zone for the interception and touchback. That was Brees' first interception since November 6 and only his 12th of the season.
Down by only 4, the Falcons had momentum thanks to the interception but didn't cross midfield, picking up first downs on an 11-yard rush by Michael Turner and an 11-yard reception by Roddy White but two incompletions and a holding penalty forced a 3rd and 20 and then a punt touchback.
Brees picked up a 3rd and 5 with a 10-yard hitch to Robert Meachem, then after a timeout on 3rd and 7 Brees tried to call a second timeout, but was penalized for delay of game. Teams are not allowed to call back-to-back timeouts without running a play. No matter, on 3rd and 12, Brees hit Meachem wide open left down the left sideline, and only a shoe-string, stumbling cutback tackle prevented a touchdown.
The 41-yard gain by the impending free agent Meachem but the Saints at the Falcon 27 with :41 left in the half, and Brees ran up to spike the ball. A short route was tackled nicely inbounds by Brent Grimes for only a two yard gain to Colston, forcing the Saints' second timeout. On 3rd and 8, Brees handed to to Sproles in the shotgun, who bolted up the middle for a 16-yard gain, the perfect playcall against a defense thinking time protection.
The Saints took their final timeout with :30 left, then Brees fired to towering 6'9 Jimmy Graham in the back corner of the end zone, who went over 5'10 cornerback Brent Grimes for the rebound, the catch and the touchdown.
Brees had burned an opponent late in a half again - moving the team 80 yards on 10 plays in just 1:49 for a demoralizing score. Matt Ryan heaved a bomb incomplete on third down, then with :02 backed up and kneeled and ran to the locker room.
The Saints converted all eight of their third down attempts in the first half - five by Brees' arm, one by Pierre Thomas on his touchdown run, another by Sproles and one via penalty.
Brees had 5009 yards passing on the season at the halftime of game 15, just 75 shy of Marino's record. The Saints were looking for the hero to beat the record in the Superdome on Monday Night Football against the archrival, and they would, but not before a sudden cold streak in the second half.
The Saints received the second half kickoff and went right up the gut to Pierre Thomas for eight yards, then Brees found Henderson for 12. Perhaps with too much record-breaking talk on his mind, or just a desire to get it over with, Brees escaped pressure in the pocket, rolled right and threw a fluttering duck down the right sideline into double coverage. Meachem couldn't break up the pass and it was intercepted off the deflection by Dunta Robinson at the Falcon 16. After going throughout most of two months without an interception, Brees had now thrown two in a game.
Like they have in recent games, the Saints defense rose strong to the occasion and forced a three and out, with the line batting down a 3rd and 3 pass by Ryan. Back with the ball and keeping the run going on first down, Sproles ripped off a 36-yard rush down the left sideline to midfield. The Saints picked up 3rd and 1 by showing a run-heavy front but Brees rising from under center and quickly tossing a slant to Jimmy Graham for five yards.
After Pierre Thomas ripped off a 12-yard run on first down, Brees showed off his agility by stepping out of a sack, stepping up in the pocket and throwing to Meachem, who beat two defenders and made the sliding touchdown pass from 24 yards out. The Saints passed in that situation and kept two backs in a tight end in for max protection as only Meachem and Henderson ran routes.
Down 28-10, the Falcons were in danger of losing control of the game and desperately needed some traction on offense. Ryan got that by hitting Jones in stride over the middle for a 40-yard gain. A false start and an illegal use of hands penalty pushed the Falcons back, and after an 11-yard gain on 3rd and 14, the Falcons settled for a 51-yard field goal attempt that was good.
The Saints took back what momentum the Falcons had gained when Sproles returned the kickoff 92 yards, shoved out of bounds by CB Chris Owens at the Atlanta 14 yard line. The Saints couldn't punch it in, their first failure to score a touchdown in the red zone all game, and John Kasay matched Atlanta's score with a 29-yard field goal, making it 31-13.
The Falcons kicked off another drive and got into Saints territory with a quick-snap quarterback keeper on 3rd and 1 and two plays later, a roughing the passer call on DT Tom Johnson that added 15 yards to a 12-yard pass to Michael Turner. Ryan then converted a 3rd and 8 with a 12-yard completion to White, and then a 3rd and 6 was converted with a pass to White for 8 yards inside the Saint red zone. TE Michael Palmer caught a 10-yard pass to set the Falcons up at the Saints 6 with first and goal.
But Ryan threw incompletion into the end zone, then Ryan with a free-rushing Will Smith in his face threw the ball to the left flat, where no Atlanta player was running. The officials conferred and called Ryan for intentional grounding, putting the Falcons back at the Saint 16 with third and goal. CB Jabari Greer and S Jonathon Amaya bottled up Roddy White for a short gain, ending the Falcons' threat with 12:48 left in the game. A Matt Bryant 30-yard field goal made it 31-16, but it was a victory for the New Orleans defense.
A Chris Ivory run of 9 yards set up 2nd and 1, but Brees fired a dropped interception to Colston, then Ivory was dropped for a loss on third down, forcing the Saints' first punt of the game. It was a big stop for the Falcons defense who absolutely needed the quick stop if they were to start a comeback down by 15.
The Saints defense stepped up again and delivered a knockout blow, reminiscent of the 2009 defense that carried the team to a title. An 8-yard catch by Julio Jones was a gang tackle effort, as Ramon Humber and Scott Shanle wrapped up Jones but Shanle swatted the ball free from the rookie's hand. After a wrestle for the ball it squirted free and Malcolm Jenkins scooped and scored - his balky right shoulder that looked limp after an earlier devastating hit on Roddy White.
The defensive touchdown, the first since October 30 in St. Louis, put the Saints up 38-16. It was Jenkins' first score all season, his last on December 12 of last season, also against the Rams.
In full desperation mode, Ryan threw exclusively the next series, often in empty backfield shotgun. Passes of 17 to Jones and 26 to White helped move the Falcons to the Saint 18. A nine yard pass to Tony Gonzalez, only his third catch of a quiet game, set up 3rd and 1 from the Saint 9. Rookie CB Johnny Patrick made a great tackle on Gonzalez at the sideline, short of the first down line, only the second solo tackle of his short NFL career. It was similar to Jo-Lonn Dunbar's excellent tackle at the sideline in overtime of the first matchup. Both tackles, near the first down marker on an early down, eventually forced the Falcons into a failed fourth down attempt.
Ryan fired into the end zone for Roddy White, who protested greatly that he was held. The side judge threw a flag - but replay showed it was clearly White who shoved Roman Harper at the back of the end zone. The penalty declined, the Falcons lined up for a must-have fourth and short. Instead of using bruising tailback Michael Turner, Ryan tossed it away, hurried and backpedaling as he was harassed by Roman Harper and Ramon Humber with 8:20 left.
It was Ryan's 48th pass of the day, as the Saints held Turner - who has burned them so badly in the past - to only 11 carries for 39 yards.
The Saints failed to convert the next series, with Brees scrambling out of bounds for a nine yard gain on 3rd and 12. For the second time this season, Brees had an ugly - and dangerous - dive, this time lunging forward and landing on his throwing elbow and surgically-repaired shoulder. Did he never play baseball and practice a foot-first slide? Instead, Brees lowered the shoulder into the diminutive Grimes, who was seen after the game acknowledging Brees' big hit on the sideline.
A booming 59-yard punt by Thomas Morstead, who continues to extend his league record with 62 kickoff touchbacks, put the Falcons at their own 24. C Joe Hawley forced his teammates into a false start when he didn't snap the ball and all four other linemen moved, and that five yards proved to be the difference as Ryan completed short passes of 6, 5, and 3 yards, bringing up 4th and 1. Ryan tossed for Jones but it was expertly broken up by Tracy Porter, and Brees took over at the Falcon 33, 29 yards short of Marino's record.
Far from running off the final 5:08 of a blowout victory, Brees dropped and tossed on five of the next six snaps, hitting Colston for 12 and Henderson for 11. At the Atlanta 9, Brees threw incomplete for Henderson, then the Saints' went to their always-winner, the inside slant out of the backfield to Darren Sproles. The newest Saint weapon, signed after a furious recruiting effort by Brees in the shortened offseason, caught the pass in traffic at the goal line and scored.
The touchdown, Brees' 41st on the season, broke Marino's mark by two yards, giving him 5087 on the season. Brees turned and pumped his first as his teammates crowded him, the first left guard Carl Nicks who ran and lifted Brees over his shoulder. The Saints called a timeout as Brees received the ball, pointed in a circle at the ecstatic home crowd, and hugged everyone on the sidelines, rubbing off his eyeblack on each coach. As his record was announced on the public address system, the crowd roared.
The Saints kicked the extra point making it 45-16, and backup Falcons QB Chris Redman entered the game with 2:45 left, throwing a string of near-interceptions before the clock ran out.
Colston and Meachem, both set to hit free agency along with Drew Brees, combined for 10 catches, 156 yards and two touchdowns. Julio Jones and Roddy White had huge days themselves, combining for 19 catches, 255 yards and a score, most of Ryan's 373 yards, completing 34 of 52 passes.
Darren Sproles, including his record-breaking nine yard touchdown catch, led the Saints with 67 rushing yards, part of his 236 all-purpose yards on the night.
Notes: Lance Moore left the game early in the first quarter, recording on two receptions for 53 yards including a 38-yard bomb on Brees' first play from scrimmage and a 15-yard gain with 8:32 left in the first quarter. But Moore went down easily on that second catch and may have injured his hamstring... Starting safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins (shoulder stringer) each left the game for a short period but returned...