New Orleans, LA (SportsNetwork.com) - Matt Ryan threw for 322 yards and the Atlanta Falcons' maligned defense rose to the occasion in a season-saving 30-14 victory over New Orleans that dropped the erratic Saints out of the NFC South race.
Entering this critical divisional showdown ranked at the bottom of the NFL in total defense, pass defense and sacks, the Falcons put forth their best effort of the year on that side of the ball to set up a winner-take-all matchup with Carolina for the NFC South crown next Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta (6-9) held the Saints to 328 total yards and came up with five sacks and four takeaways, including a pivotal fumble from Jimmy Graham at the goal line early in the fourth quarter and Osi Umenyiora's 86-yard fumble return touchdown on the final play.
"I'm so proud of the effort they gave and the way they executed out there," said Ryan of the defense. "They were the reason we got it done today."
Ryan did his part as well, completing a sharp 30-of-40 passes with a touchdown and no turnovers. Julio Jones racked up 107 yards on seven catches after not practicing the entire week due to a hip injury.
Drew Brees finished 30-of-47 for 313 yards and a touchdown to Graham, but was intercepted twice in the loss, the fifth straight at the Superdome for New Orleans (6-9).
"You have to be able to convert third downs. You have to go make some plays," said Brees. "I know we missed some big-play opportunities in the passing game. You just have to sustain drives. We just haven't been able to do that at home those two times."
Brees' second pick all but sealed the Saints' fate. After New Orleans got the ball back at its own 10-yard line down just 20-14 with 2:40 left, Falcons cornerback Robert McClain jumped a route and snared the quarterback's short pass intended for Nick Toon to place Atlanta deep in enemy territory. The turnover led to Matt Bryant's third field goal of the day, a 32-yarder with 1:56 to go.
"It was a big-time play," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith of the interception. "(McClain) got a great jump on the ball. Robert's continued to improve all season long. I know that some people had talked about him not making plays. He made the play when we needed the play made."
The Saints managed to move inside the Atlanta 10 with time winding down, but the last-ditch effort turned into disaster when Kroy Biermann jarred the ball loose from Brees and Umenyiora scooped up the fumble before taking it the other way right as the clock expired.
Atlanta also was able to withstand a brutal start to the game, as the Saints' Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to the 1-yard line and Mark Ingram powered across the goal line on the next play, giving New Orleans a 7-0 edge a mere 20 seconds in.
Those were the Saints' lone two highlights of the first half, as the offense generated a paltry 78 yards over the initial two quarters with the Falcons dominating the line of scrimmage. Brees was intercepted once and sacked three times, one on a second-quarter blitz from safety Dwight Lowery that took the team out of field goal range.
Atlanta countered Ingram's quick score with Bryant's 44-yard field goal on its first possession, set up by Ryan's 36-yard strike to Devonta Freeman on a wheel route out of the backfield.
The Falcons went three-and-out on their next two series, but a pair of Roddy White catches totaling 26 yards on Atlanta's subsequent trek led to Bryant booting a 50-yard field goal that cut the lead to 7-6 early in the second quarter.
Following another New Orleans punt, the Falcons put together their longest drive of the season -- a 15-play, 89-yard march in which Ryan completed nine passes and converted three third-down situations.
The last, a 24-yard delivery to Jones on 3rd-and-10, put the ball on the 3- yard line with eight seconds on the first-half clock. Ryan then hit Eric Weems with a shovel toss on the ensuing snap to send Atlanta into the break owning a 13-7 advantage.
An 86-yard drive that took just seven plays extended the Falcons' margin in the third quarter, with Freeman capping the sequence by side-stepping a defender near the line of scrimmage and taking off for a 31-yard touchdown with 5:42 left in the period.
Brees got the Saints into the red zone on the following possession, which came up empty as well when Graham was stood up by Dezmen Southward at the goal line on a 12-yard reception and Kemal Ishmael ripped the ball out of the star tight end's hands.
"Did I think it was a score? Yes," said Saints head coach Sean Payton of the play. "The one look we had as they continued to show it looked pretty clear, and yet, it is what it is. They go back to New York now with that and it's disappointing."
New Orleans did put up points on its next series, driving nearly the entire length of the field and trimming the deficit to 20-14 when Graham came down with Brees' 4-yard back-shoulder throw with 5:48 left to play.
The Falcons came in just 1-5 against New Orleans at the Superdome under Smith, while Brees owned a 7-1 mark versus Atlanta at home ... The Saints had won a franchise-record 11 straight home games prior to its present slide ... Atlanta running back Steven Jackson did not return from a quad injury sustained in the second quarter, with safety William Moore (shoulder) exiting for the Falcons in the third quarter ... Saints running back Pierre Thomas was forced from the contest in the second quarter with a foot injury ... Atlanta entered the game having recorded just 16 sacks through its first 14 outings ... Ryan threw for a franchise-record 448 yards and three touchdowns in the teams' Week 1 meeting, a 37-34 Atlanta victory in overtime.