The New Orleans Saints moved a step closer to defending their Super Bowl title by securing a spot in the National Football League playoffs with a 17-14 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees bounced back from two fourth-quarter interceptions by throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with 3:24 remaining last night at the Georgia Dome.
The Saints ended Atlanta’s NFL-best eight-game winning streak and prevented the Falcons from capturing the National Football Conference’s South Division title.
“It feels good,” Brees, who had 302 yards passing, said in a televised interview. “You just want to punch your ticket to the big show and we’ve done that. We just want to get better every week and get geared up for these playoffs.”
The Saints improved to 11-4 and remain in contention for the NFC South title and home-field advantage in the playoffs, trailing the Falcons (12-3) by one game with one week left in the regular season.
With the NFC South runner-up assured of a wild-card playoff berth, the other NFC wild-card spot will be decided in Week 17 among the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers hold the advantage, needing a home win against Chicago to advance, while the Giants and Buccaneers need to win and hope the Packers lose.
New Orleans sent the Falcons to their first home loss of the season as Brees engineered a late 92-yard scoring drive that took more than seven minutes off the clock.
Brees had been intercepted by Atlanta linemen on the Saints’ previous two fourth-quarter drives. Defensive end Chauncey Davis put Atlanta ahead 14-10 less than one minute into the final quarter with a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I was telling myself, ‘Put that behind you, you just have to stay composed,’” Brees said. “It was a one-possession game and we had to go 90 yards, but we did it effectively and guys made plays down the stretch.”
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan lost for just the second time in 21 career games at the Georgia Dome. Ryan passed for 148 yards and one touchdown for Atlanta, which punted the ball to New Orleans with 2:44 remaining and never got it back as the Saints converted two late first downs.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get it done there at the end,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said during a news conference.
The Saints close the regular season Jan. 2 with a home game against the Buccaneers (9-6). The Falcons host the Carolina Panthers (2-13) and would clinch the NFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win.
The Philadelphia Eagles host the Minnesota Vikings tonight in the final game of Week 16 after their contest was postponed two days by an East Coast snowstorm. The Eagles locked up the NFC East title and a playoff berth two days ago when the Giants lost in Green Bay.