Drew Brees threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints' much-maligned defense came up with a huge stop late to preserve a 23-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that gave head coach Sean Payton a triumphant return to the sidelines.
A unit that surrendered an NFL-record 7,042 total yards last season held Atlanta's potent offense scoreless over its final four drives. the last of which ended when Roman Harper intercepted Matt Ryan in the end zone on 4th- and-goal with 43 seconds left.
Brees did his part as well, shaking off a second-half interception to complete 26-of-35 throws that included a 7-yard connection with Jimmy Graham that put New Orleans (1-0) up 20-17 with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
Darren Sproles hauled in six of Brees' passes for 88 yards, while Marques Colston had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown to help make Payton a winner in his first game back from a year-long suspension for his involvement in the Saints' well-publicized bounty scandal.
"It was just important to get the first win," said Payton afterward. "It's good to start the season that way. I thought we fought hard, especially late in the game."
Ryan finished with 304 yards on 25-of-38 passing with two touchdowns along with the pivotal pick. Julio Jones had seven receptions totaling 76 yards and a touchdown for defending NFC South champion Atlanta (0-1), with Harry Douglas compiling 93 yards on four grabs in the loss.
The usually aggressive Payton opted to play it safe with New Orleans holding a three-point lead with under four minutes to go, bringing on Garrett Hartley for a 22-yard field goal try on a 4th-and-2 situation from the Atlanta 4. Hartley knocked home his third 3-pointer of the afternoon to give the Saints a 23-17 edge with 3:12 left, leaving the game's fate in the hands of the revamped defense under Rob Ryan.
The decision looked questionable after Matt Ryan completed four straight passes to march the Falcons inside the Saints' 30 by the two-minute warning, and a 20-yard hookup with Douglas created a 1st-and-goal at the seven with 1:09 remaining.
Matt Ryan's next attempt fell incomplete and Roddy White managed just four yards on the following play. Matt Ryan then found Steven Jackson over the middle for a would-be touchdown that the veteran running back had slip off his hands to bring on fourth down.
The Saints brought the blitz on the deciding snap, forcing the Atlanta QB to loft the ball off his back foot for Tony Gonzalez into a crowd. The ball was tipped in the air and landed in the arms of Harper to seal the win.
"I thought it was a well-executed two-minute drive until we got inside the 10- yard line and we had some opportunities to make the plays and we did not get them done," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith.
Atlanta moved the ball with ease on its initial drive of the second half, with Jackson ripping off a 50-yard run off right tackle on the second play and Matt Ryan hitting Jones in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown just over a minute later that put the Falcons up by a 17-13 count.
The Saints stiffened thereafter, inducing two straight three-and-outs and sacking Matt Ryan twice over that stretch. Prior to the first failed series, Brees carved up the Atlanta secondary in leading a 10-play, 80-yard jaunt that sent New Orleans back in front.
Brees hit on 6-of-7 throws for 74 yards on the go-ahead possession, capped by his 7-yard strike to Graham in the right flat that staked the Saints to a three-point advantage.
The standout signal-caller was on the mark as well to put New Orleans again in scoring range with time winding down. Brees dropped in a 32-yard pass to Sproles on a wheel route, then later teamed with Colston for a 19-yard gain to the Atlanta 12 on 3rd-and-14 to help set up Hartley's kick that increased the lead to 23-17.
Atlanta struck first following an exchange of punts to start the game. Matt Ryan hit Douglas on a crossing pattern that the slot receiver took 50 yards to the New Orleans 10, then later rolled out before firing a dart to Gonzalez from seven yards away that gave Atlanta a 7-0 edge around 6 1/2 minutes in.
Payton then gambled on the ensuing possession, running a play on 4th-and-1 from the Saints' 47 in which Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent stuffed Mark Ingram for a loss.
Atlanta promptly moved back into scoring range, highlighted by Matt Ryan's 12- yard scramble on 3rd-and-6 that was coupled by an unnecessary roughness penalty on New Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro that created a 1st-and-goal situation. The Saints' defense held, however, and the Falcons settled for Matt Bryant's 23-yard field goal and a 10-0 advantage.
New Orleans responded with a 12-play, 50-yard sequence that featured a 21-yard grab by Graham on 3rd-and-9 and culminated in Hartley's 48-yard field goal with just over four minutes elapsed in the second quarter. The defense continued the momentum on Atlanta's next series, with Malcolm Jenkins forcing a fumble from Jones that Harper scooped up and returned 19 yards to the Falcons' 31.
Three plays later, Colston made an acrobatic catch on a well-thrown Brees deep ball for a 25-yard touchdown that knotted the score at 10-10.
"The turnovers we thought would be important in the game, and certainly they were in this one," Payton remarked.
Brees delivered another pinpoint pass on New Orleans' subsequent drive, a dart to Kenny Stills that the rookie broke free for a 67-yard gain inside the Atlanta 10. A pair of penalties from guard Jahri Evans backed the Saints up, however, causing Hartley to come on for a 31-yard field goal shortly after the two-minute warning.
Colston's touchdown grab was his 533rd career catch as a Saint, moving him past Eric Martin for the franchise lead in receptions ... Jackson amassed 122 total yards (77 rushing, 45 receiving) in the former Ram's first game as a Falcon ... New Orleans cornerbacks Keenan Lewis (leg) and Patrick Robinson (foot) each exited the game with injuries, while defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley did not return after hurting his lower leg in the first quarter ... Brees now has 412 career completions against Atlanta, surpassing Joe Montana (398) for the most by an opposing quarterback against the Falcons ... Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel was inactive due to a thigh injury.