Saints down Falcons to clinch playoff spot
NEW ORLEANS — Fittingly, on Christmas Eve, this was a stocking stuffer for the defense.
The Saints controlled the Atlanta Falcons for 57 minutes, holding them without a point on two possessions inside the Saints’ 2-yard line, and Drew Brees and Mark Ingram II supplied just enough offense to post a 23-13 victory Sunday that clinched New Orleans’ first playoff berth since 2013.
The Saints (11-4) are guaranteed at least a wild-card playoff slot and can win the NFC South next Sunday by either beating Tampa Bay on the road or having the Carolina Panthers (11-4) lose at Atlanta. The Saints hold the tiebreaker with the Panthers based on their sweep in the regular-season series.
The Falcons (9-6) still would earn a playoff berth if they defeat the Panthers next week, and they could squeak in even with a loss, but that would be unlikely.
The Saints allowed the Falcons to hold the ball for more than three minutes on just 2 of 13 drives.
“I thought our defense was magnificent,” said New Orleans coach Sean Payton, whose defensive unit held the Falcons to field goals of 37 and 48 yards by Matt Bryant until the final 2:40. Atlanta entered averaging 24.7 points a game during a 5-1 stretch the past six weeks. “I thought it was the difference in the game how we handled the short field. We came up with some key stops.”
Twice, the Falcons knocked on the door in the second half but came away empty.
Linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a deflected Brees pass on the first series of the third quarter and returned it 41 yards to the New Orleans 2-yard line. However, on second down from the 1, Devonta Freeman fumbled when defensive tackle Tyeler Davison put his helmet on the ball. Manti Te’o recovered, keeping the Saints in control, 13-0.
Then, with the Falcons trailing 13-3 late in the third quarter, Freeman was stopped again on fourth-and-goal from the New Orleans 1 by defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha, who knifed through to tackle him for a loss.
Another hard-to-believe defensive play by the Saints in the first half — this one by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore — turned around the game.
New Orleans was leading just 6-0 on field goals of 40 and 29 yards by Wil Lutz when Atlanta took over with 74 seconds left. On third-and-10 from the Atlanta 48, quarterback Matt Ryan hit wide receiver Marvin Hall on an in route, which would have given the Falcons a first down, but the ball deflected off his hands and somehow landed on the backside of Lattimore.
Teammates Vonn Bell and Craig Robertson kept the ball from hitting the turf, and Lattimore eventually reached around his waist to cradle the interception at the New Orleans 36 with 50 seconds left in the half.
Three plays later, Brees found Ted Ginn Jr. alone versus man-to-man coverage by cornerback Desmond Trufant, and the 54-yard touchdown connection expanded the Saints’ lead to 13-0 with 14 seconds left in the half.
“It was a little bit like that Super Bowl play where it rolls around your body,” Payton said. “It happens once in a while.”
Regarding the ensuing touchdown, Payton said the Saints caught the Falcons in a man coverage they had anticipated, and Ginn simply outraced Trufant to the end zone.
“That was a huge swing,” Payton said. “For them to be in position to get points before the half, and then we got the big play. We had seen something the last time we played them on film and wanted to get the look, and it was perfect. Ted executed it.”
Brees finished 21 of 28 for 239 yards, and the Saints rushed for just 86 yards on 31 carries, but the defense came through.
“The defense played spectacular,” Brees said. “Just watching them work this week and watching them go about the discipline of putting the game plan in and understanding what it was going to take to win this game, and then to execute it to perfection was great.”
The Falcons did not cross midfield and picked up only five first downs in the first half. Atlanta also hurt itself with 10 penalties for 91 yards, three coming on one drive in which the Falcons found themselves in a first-and-40 hole.
The Falcons cut the deficit to 13-3 on Bryant’s 37-yard field goal early in the third quarter, but Ingram broke it open, 20-3, with his 26-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
“It’s a disappointed locker room, obviously, because we do not have a chance to win the division, and that’s where out mindset has been for a long time,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “Now you have to assess to say can we play our very best this week to go where we want to go and advance. We’ll go back and look at our missed opportunities for sure.”
NOTES: New Orleans’ Drew Brees became only the third quarterback in NFL history to reach the 70,000-yard career mark, joining No. 1 Peyton Manning (71,940) and Brett Favre (71,838). Brees finished the game at 70,200 yards, meaning he likely would wind up No. 1 on the list by the end of next season barring injury. ... The Saints had a 16-play drive in the second quarter, eating up 8:21 of the clock, but they had to settle for a 29-yard Wil Lutz field goal. The drive ended with two bad exchanges between Brees and RB Mark Ingram. ... Saints LT Terron Armstead left with a quad injury.