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ATLANTA – After four embarrassing weeks, the Atlanta Falcons were finally competitive.
The result was the same.
Matt Ryan was sacked five times and Drew Brees did just enough for New Orleans, throwing a pair of first-half touchdown passes that gave the Saints a 17-13 victory over their NFC South rival on Thursday night.
"It's always frustrating when you come up short," Atlanta's Jonathan Babineaux said. "We put our hearts and souls into it every week."
The Falcons (2-9) lost their fifth in a row, but this was by far the best effort of the skid. They had been outscored 135-61 over the previous four games and had not led for more than 15 quarters, a drought that finally ended when Steven Jackson dove in from the 1 to cap an impressive opening drive against the Saints.
Brees threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham and a 1-yarder to Benjamin Watson, giving the first-place Saints (9-2) a sweep of the season series with Atlanta.
The Falcons wrapped up their first losing season since 2007 and were officially eliminated from the division race with five weeks remaining.
"I'm proud of the way the guys played," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We had 'em. We had 'em right where we wanted 'em."
Indeed, the Falcons had a chance to pull off the upset, driving to the Saints 29 with less than 3 minutes to go. But New Orleans turned up the pressure on Ryan, Atlanta missed a long field goal, and the Saints ran off all but the last 5 seconds.
New Orleans also forced a crucial fumble early in the fourth quarter. Keyunta Dawson stripped the ball from Falcons rookie receiver Darius Johnson, and Corey White fell on it at the Saints 13.
"It seemed like it was going to come down to a turnover," Gonzalez said. "That's what happened."
The Georgia Dome rocked with chants of "Who Dat! Who Dat!" as the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Saints ensuring they will remain alone atop the NFC South and just one game behind Seattle for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. New Orleans will face the Seahawks on Dec. 2 in what shapes up as one of the biggest games of the year.
"We're rolling and we can't stop," said Cameron Jordan, who led the assault on Ryan. "We've got to get better."
The Falcons had hoped to salvage a bit of pride in this lost season, driving from their own 9 — actually, the 3 after Ryan was sacked. Jordan got to Ryan again, sandwiched between a pair of harried incompletions. As the crowd groaned, the Falcons surprisingly sent on Matt Bryant to attempt a 52-yard field goal.
He knocked one through, but the Saints called timeout just before the snap. His next try sailed wide of the left upright.
Brees and the offense took it from there, assuring Atlanta had time for only one desperate play at the end.
"We knew coming here was going to be a challenge," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "The two teams, the history, regardless of the record it has always been a close game, and tonight was no exception."
Brees was 23 of 33 for 278 yards. Ryan was 30 of 39 for 297 yards, but Atlanta's offense produced only one touchdown — the fourth time that has happened during its losing streak.
Jordan was credited with 2½ sacks, taking advantage of an offensive line that has struggled all season to protect Ryan.
"There were entirely too many pressures on the quarterback," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
After Jackson's early TD, the Saints responded immediately. Brees guided a 15-play, 78-yard drive that included five straight third-down conversions, including Watson's leaping catch in the back of the end zone.
Bryant put the Falcons back ahead with the first of his two field goals, a 39-yarder early in the second quarter, but New Orleans grabbed the lead for good when Graham slipped behind the secondary and hauled in his long touchdown.
He celebrated by dunking over the goalpost and hung on the crossbar for extra emphasis, and ended up bending the post. As the Saints lined up to attempt the extra point, the officials noticed the crooked uprights, leading to a brief delay as a worker came out with a ladder to straighten the bar.
The Falcons had a chance to go back up before halftime, driving to the New Orleans 10. On third-and-goal, Ryan couldn't find an open receiver and took off running, briefly spotting a path to the end zone. But the Saints closed in quickly, prompting Ryan to slide down at the 6 rather than risk an injury. Some Atlanta fans booed as Matty Ice trotted off the field. Atlanta settled for another field goal by Bryant from 24 yards and trailed 14-13 at the half.
The Falcons got no closer.
NOTES: Falcons CB Desmond Trufant went out in the first half with a thigh injury, but returned to the game after halftime. ... Jackson had 63 yards on 16 carries for Atlanta. ... Graham had five receptions for 100 yards. ... Saints DE Akiem Hicks was credited with 1½ sacks.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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