The Atlanta Falcons made a statement Thursday night, picking off New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees a career-high five times and ending his remarkable consecutive games streak with a touchdown pass in a 23-13 victory over the Saints at the Georgia Dome.
Matt Ryan completed 18-of-33 passes for 165 yards with a touchdown for the Falcons (11-1), who avenged their lone defeat of the season and snapped a four-game losing streak to the Saints.
"That was a really good win for our football team. I felt our defense played a tremendous game," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith.
Atlanta can clinch the NFC South division title with a Tampa Bay loss or tie at Denver on Sunday. A loss or tie by Seattle at Chicago on Sunday will secure a playoff spot for the Falcons.
New Orleans (5-7), meanwhile, saw its playoff hopes become even slimmer with its second straight loss.
Brees, who had 341 passing yards, failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 4 of the 2009 campaign, snapping a his NFL-record streak at 54 games.
Garrett Hartley connected on field goals of 21 and 52 yards to draw the Saints within 17-13 in the third quarter.
Brees was intercepted on the next New Orleans' drive and safety William Moore's return placed the ball at the Saints' 41-yard line.
Ryan moved the chains with an 18-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons had gone the previous five possessions without registering a first down.
The drive stalled in the red zone and Matt Bryant nailed a 29-yard field goal 12 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Brees then led the team down the field, from the Saints' 20 to the Falcons' 32, but Pierre Thomas was wrapped up for a 4-yard loss on 2nd-and-1 before defensive end John Abraham sacked Brees to knock New Orleans out of field goal range.
Bryant drilled a 55-yarder on the ensuing drive with 4:25 remaining.
Two Brees interceptions were sandwiched around a fumble by Atlanta running back Michael Turner, who had the ball stripped on a second-effort drive forward. Rafael Bush recovered and scored on a 71-yard touchdown. The play was reversed, however, with Bush being ruled down by contact.
On the first play after the 2-minute warning, Moore picked off a deep pass along the left sideline, sealing the win.
"It's extremely disappointing," Brees said about the turnovers. "I pride myself on being a great decision maker and a guy that's going to help us win the game and not be a detriment by turning the ball over like that."
The Falcons' first drive of the game looked effortless as they never even faced third down.
Following a near-interception on the first play of the game, Turner, who had been held to 15 yards on 13 carries in a 31-27 loss at New Orleans on Nov. 11, blazed for 35 yards over right tackle on second down.
Four plays later, all via the ground, Turner powered his way into the end zone from three yards out to become the Falcons' all-time touchdown leader with 58. He had been tied with wideout Terance Mathis for the most overall touchdowns in team history.
Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who was listed as questionable because of a shoulder injury, re-injured his shoulder on the Saints' opening possession after Brees completed a downfield strike to Joe Morgan on third down. The play covered 38 yards, but safety Thomas DeCoud picked off Brees' next pass in the end zone.
The Falcons extended their lead 52 seconds into the second quarter. Ryan completed all four of his passes on a drive that started at midfield, the last one being caught over the middle by Gonzalez for a 17-yard score.
Unlike earlier in the game, Atlanta was able to cash in a second Brees interception. Brees threw a screen pass that caromed off Chris Ivory and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon hauled in the deflection. His modest return set up a first down at the New Orleans 29.
The Saints' defense held, though, and Bryant kicked a 45-yard field goal to put Atlanta up 17-0 with 8:53 remaining.
New Orleans found some traction on the ensuing drive, but a penalty and mismanagement of the clock cost the team additional points prior to halftime.
Mark Ingram capped the 11-play march with a 1-yard plunge, and after their defense forced a three-and-out, the Saints threatened again in the waning moments.
Brees connected with Darren Sproles for a 7-yard touchdown, but Jimmy Graham was flagged for pass interference. Brees went back to Sproles for a 12-yard gain on 1st-and-goal.
Well aware that they were out of timeouts, the Saints displayed little urgency in getting up to the line. And the complacency wound up costing them when Sproles was tackled at the Atlanta 3-yard line after another short reception. The half expired before Brees was able to spike the ball.
"That's my mistake, that can't happen...I thought I had more time than we did," Brees admitted.
The Falcons have won 10 in a row at home ... Brees recorded his 63rd career 300-yard passing game, tying Dan Marino for second place in NFL history ... Turner had 12 rushes for 83 yards ... Thomas carried 14 times for 84 yards ... New Orleans' Lance Moore led all receivers with 123 yards on seven grabs.