ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons’ goals for the regular season — a division title and home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs — remain in reach. What’s been lost is that feeling of invincibility, especially if they face the New Orleans Saints again in a few weeks.
“We’ve got to take a long look at ourselves,” John Abraham said.
Drew Brees threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with less than 3½ minutes remaining, and the defending Super Bowl champs clinched their return to the postseason with a 17-14 victory over Atlanta on Monday night.
New Orleans (11-4) snapped the Falcons’ eight-game winning streak and stopped them from wrapping up the NFC South and home field all the way up to the Super Bowl.
If the teams meet again in the playoffs, a distinct possibility, the Saints know they are capable of winning even at the Georgia Dome — a huge psychological boost in late December.
“Here we are, having won seven of eight,” Brees said. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re playing on the road or at home. We’re battle-tested.”
OK, so all is not lost for Atlanta (12-3). Far from it. The Falcons merely need to beat Carolina (2-13) at home on the final week of the season to wrap up their first NFC South title since 2004 and the top seed in the conference.
But this one stung.
Atlanta had a chance on the national stage to silence all those skeptics who wondered if the team with the best record was truly the NFC’s best team.
Not on this night.
The Falcons had two crucial fumbles, breaking a streak of seven straight games without coughing the ball up. Matt Ryan’s two favorite receivers were effectively shut down. Roddy White scored the only touchdown for the offense but was held to three catches for 43 yards. Tony Gonzalez managed just two receptions for 12 yards.
“We forced them to do some things they didn’t want to do,” New Orleans safety Roman Harper said. “We made them play left-handed. We disrupted their timing.”
The Saints won even though Brees threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, the first of which was returned 26 yards for a touchdown by defensive end Chauncey Davis, giving Atlanta its first lead of the night. Abraham also picked off a pass after New Orleans’ apparent go-ahead touchdown was ruined by a false-start penalty.
Through it all, the Saints persevered. Brees completed six straight passes on a 13-play, 90-yard drive that won it, capped by a quick slant to Graham.
“That’s part of it,” Brees said. “It’s the ebb and flow of the game. Sometimes you have a clean pocket. Sometimes they’re getting after you.
“In the end, we found a way to win.”
Brees completed 35 of 49 passes for 302 yards, easily winning the duel with Ryan (15 of 29 for 148 yards) on a night when both teams struggled to run the ball effectively.
“It starts with the confidence (Brees) has in himself and the confidence the players have in him,” coach Sean Payton said. “When he’s under center, we’re always in the game.”
New Orleans especially enjoyed getting the best of White, who stirred up hard feelings last week with a series of inflammatory tweets, including one that referred to Hurricane Katrina.
“We didn’t execute. We didn’t do anything we needed to do,” White said. “Our defense played well. They got those turnovers. They got us good field position, and we just didn’t get the job done.”
Even though Brees made two huge mistakes, the Falcons were lamenting all the times he got away with a dip here, a step there.
“We can’t keep getting close,” Abraham said. “It’s not enough, especially with a guy like (Brees). He’s not going to just go down. If you get close like that, he’s still looking at his receivers. He’s third-and-short, he’s third-and-long, we’ve got him right where we want him and he’s completing passes for first down.”
All around, the Falcons didn’t play their typically clean game.
An errant snap by Todd McClure out of the shotgun was recovered by New Orleans, setting up Pierre Thomas’ 2-yard touchdown run that gave the Saints a 10-0 lead.
Ryan connected with White on a 7-yard touchdown pass that made it 10-7 at halftime, but Atlanta squandered another chance when Michael Turner fumbled the ball away on second-and-goal at the 1. It was his first fumble of the season.
“It wasn’t anything they did,” he said. “I just lost control, and that’s something I can’t do. I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”
The Falcons lost for only the fourth time at home in Mike Smith’s three years as coach.
“We don’t want to feel this way the rest of the season,” Ryan said. “We’re going to work hard to make sure we don’t.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.