Saints 35 Falcons 27
NEW ORLEANS — The Saints are still perfect, despite an imperfect performance, and now need one more win to set the record for best start in franchise history.
Drew Brees had 308 yards passing, Pierre Thomas scored two touchdowns and Jabari Greer returned an interception for a score to help the Saints improve to 7-0 with a 35-27 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. Only the 1991 Saints began a season with as many wins and no Saints team has started 8-0.
“We did a lot of things well and yet we did a lot of things that made it close at the end,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I’m excited to win though. I’m excited to win this game and get to 7-0. It was an important game against a division team and I’m proud of our players. They fought.”
Greer’s touchdown was the Saints’ fifth score on an interception this season, tying a single-season franchise mark set in 1998. Tracy Porter also had an interception on the Saints one-yard line on a pass tipped by Jonathan Vilma in the fourth quarter, preserving a 28-24 lead after Thomas’ fumble had given Atlanta the ball on the Saints 35.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was intercepted three times, the third straight game he’d been intercepted at least twice.
Still, the Falcons stayed in it until the end, getting a 40-yard field goal from Jason Elam with 28 seconds left, then recovering an onside kick. Ryan only had time for a desperation heave in the final seconds, and Darren Sharper turned it into his seventh interception of the season.
Sharper’s interception also was the Saints’ 16th overall this season, surpassing New Orleans’ total of 15 from 2008. The Saints have at least one interception in every game this season.
“The way we’ve been able to (get turnovers) and score is a big reason we’re where we’re at right now,” Payton said.
Brees hit Marques Colston for an 18-yard score. Thomas scored on a 22-yard run in the first quarter and a one-yard catch out of the backfield with 3:03 to go, flipping backward over a tackler and into the end zone. That touchdown made it 35-24 and ignited the entire Superdome into chants of “Who dat say they gonna’ beat them Saints?”
“Pierre did a good job of getting through that last defender,” Payton said. “It was following the series where he fumbled and it was good to see him respond.”
Reggie Bush added a one-yard touchdown late in the first half, giving the Saints a lead they would not relinquish.
Roddy White beat Greer on a 68-yard scoring pass from Ryan early in the third quarter, and the Falcons pulled to 28-24 on Elam’s 25-yard field goal with 11:33 to go in the game.
That field goal, however, came only after Payton sprinted down the sideline and launched his red flag about 20 yards, just in time to challenge a game-tying touchdown catch by White in the back of the end zone. Replays showed White allowed the ball to touch the turf as he bobbled the catch.
The loss, Atlanta’s second straight, dropped the Falcons (4-3) three games behind the Saints in the NFC South. It marked the first time the Falcons had lost two straight under second-year coach Mike Smith. It also squandered Michael Turner’s best game of the season. He had 151 yards rushing, including a 13-yard touchdown.
The Falcons’ defence also produced a score. Thomas DeCoud’s jarring sack on a delayed blitz up the middle dislodged the ball from Brees and Kroy Biermann returned it from the four-yard line, giving Atlanta a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.
Brees also was intercepted on a spectacular leaping grab by Brent Grimes.
Brees never got rattled through, completing 15 of his first 17 passes and leading three scoring drives in the first half. Two of his top targets were Colston, who finished with 85 yards on six catches, and tight end Jeremy Shockey, who caught five passes for 72 yards.
Atlanta had two first-half drives stall on Elam’s missed field goal attempts from 34 and 51 yards.
A little more than three years ago, the Falcons were the visitors when the Saints returned to the newly reopened Louisiana Superdome for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. That Monday night had a storybook start for the Saints, who scored on a blocked punt on Atlanta’s opening drive.
With those vivid memories still fresh, the Superdome crowd was cheering wildly as the Saints defence took the field after the opening kickoff.
This time, however, Ryan calmly led the Falcons 77 yards for a score, with Turner gaining 38 of those yards, including his lone TD.
New Orleans answered when Thomas broke former LSU star Chevis Jackson’s tackle near the line of scrimmage, then cut left away from John Abraham to tie it at 7.