NEW ORLEANS – Quite a night for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints — a record and a rout.
Brees set the NFL mark for yards passing in a season, breaking a record that Dan Marino had held for nearly three decades, and New Orleans clinched the NFC South title with a 45-16 victory over the Falcons on Monday night.
Brees threw for 307 yards and four touchdowns, the last a 9-yard strike to Darren Sproles that set the record with 2:51 to go.
"Honestly, I was really trying not to think about the record or anything," Brees said. "I knew we were close. A couple guys mentioned stuff to me on the sideline. I didn't want to hear it. It's like a pitcher with a no-hitter, I guess."
It was Brees' final pass of the game and it gave him 5,087 yards passing — with one game still to play. Marino finished with 5,084 yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984.
Minutes after Brees broke the record, Marino offered congratulations on his Twitter account.
"Great job by such a special player," Marino wrote.
As Sproles spiked the ball, Brees thrust his fist triumphantly in the air and started walking toward midfield while the Superdome crowd went wild and his teammates chased him down. Offensive guard Carl Nicks was the first one to get there and tried to lift Brees onto his shoulder, but couldn't do it as teammates swarmed around.
"If I could have put him on my shoulders and paraded him around the whole stadium I would have done that. He deserves it," Nicks said. "It's like a movie, man. Just a movie ending. It's beautiful. ... You could tell by everyone's reaction after he did it how much people care about that guy. We all love him."
Brees' four touchdown passes gave him 276 for his career, moving him ahead of Joe Montana (273) and Vinny Testaverde (275) for ninth all-time. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 5,000 yards twice — he had 5,069 in 2008.
Brees' first scoring pass went for 8 yards to Marques Colston and the second for 9 yards to Jimmy Graham. Graham's TD catch was his 10th of the season, a new franchise high for a tight end. In the third quarter, Brees hit Robert Meachem for a score from 24 yards, which made it 28-10.
"I love the fact that everybody could be part of this on Monday Night Football," Brees said. "There's so many people that are a part of this. It's not about me. It's about this team, it's about this city, it's about these fans. So many people contributed to this, and I'm happy for them."
The Saints (12-3) also had 463 total yards, giving them more than 6,857 offensive yards for the season, breaking the 2008 club record of 6,571. New Orleans continues to close in on the NFL record of 7,075 offensive yards in a season set by the 2000 St. Louis Rams.
Brees might have broken the record in the third quarter if not for Sproles' 92-yard kickoff return, which set up John Kasay's 29-yard field goal. Brees also was intercepted twice, once in the Falcons end zone, but New Orleans was still dominant enough to take a three-score lead.
The game became a romp when Julio Jones was stripped by Scott Shanle and Malcolm Jenkins returned it 30 yards for a score to make it 38-16 in the fourth quarter. The Superdome crowd was in full celebration by then, but the play also meant fans would have to wait until later in the fourth quarter before Brees finally got his chance to break the passing record.
"Obviously, it's a special moment for the players, especially Drew," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I couldn't be more proud of him."
The Saints can earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye with a win Sunday over Carolina and a San Francisco loss at St. Louis, which is 2-13.
Atlanta, which won the NFC South last season, is headed to the playoffs as a wild card.
Uncharacteristically, Brees had only a yard passing during a span of a little more than 18 minutes. Knowing he was closing in the record, the crowd howled, "Drewwww" each time he took the field. He finally gave the fans what they wanted after Atlanta failed on a fourth-down try at its own 33. That gave Brees, who needed only 30 yards for the record at that point, just enough space to work with.
"I knew after the touchdown to Meachem that we were really close," Brees said. "I didn't know how close, but really close, and then we had a couple of those drives that stalled out and I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me' — especially since the whole game we had been converting first downs, doing all the right things offensively, both the run and the pass, yet we couldn't put a drive together in the fourth quarter and I thought, we've got to get this ball back, we've got to go down and score and put one together."
Matt Ryan had 373 yards passing and one TD, including a 21-yard scoring strike to Jones that gave the Falcons (9-6) a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter.
"We didn't really play well enough in any phase of the game to give ourselves a chance to win," said Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose team came in with a chance to stay in the hunt for the division title. "There were some opportunities early on, and then it kind of got out of hand there at the end. ... It's not the type of effort that you want to have with so much on the line with what the outcome could have meant to our team."
New Orleans responded to Atlanta's first TD with a 10-play, 81-yard scoring drive that put the Saints in the lead for good. Brees completed four of six passes for 48 yards, the last three to Colston, who finished with seven catches for 81 yards.
The result might have been even more lopsided if Brees' pass intended for Graham in the end zone had not been broken up by linebacker Curtis Lofton, and then batted in the air by safety William Moore before coming to rest in the arms of Dominique Franks for an interception.
New Orleans bounced back on its final drive of the second quarter, covering 80 yards in 10 plays and only 1:55, capped by Graham's TD catch.
Both teams scored on all their possessions in the opening quarter, with the Saints briefly pulling in front 7-3 on Pierre Thomas' 4-yard touchdown run, after which he pulled a bow from his uniform pants, put it on the football and offered it as a gift to a woman with a parasol in the front row behind the end zone.
The referees weren't cutting Thomas any slack on his Christmas-themed celebration, flagging him for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The score capped an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive on which Brees completed two passes for 49 yards.
Notes: Brees has passed for 300 yards or more an NFL-record 12 times this season. ... New England quarterback Tom Brady could also pass Marino next week — and maybe even Brees, too. Brady has thrown for 4,897 yards this season. ... The Saints are 7-0 at home and never have gone undefeated at home in a full season. ... The Falcons were 0-3 on attempted fourth-down conversions.