ATLANTA (AP) — Drew Brees threw two touchdown passes, Jimmy Graham had 100 yards receiving and Pierre Thomas compiled 130 total yards. Still, the defense stole the show for another New Orleans Saints win.
Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks combined for four sacks and New Orleans' defense made a final fourth-quarter stand as the Saints held on to beat the Atlanta Falcons 17-13 on Thursday night.
The Saints (9-2) protected their NFC South lead over Carolina by completing a sweep of the season series with the Falcons, their biggest rivals.
The defense had five sacks and 10 hits on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“We've got phenomenal rushers,” said Jordan, who had 2 1/2 sacks to raise his season total to a career-high 9 1/2.
“One was on the left tackle, one was on the right tackle,” Jordan said. “Wherever you say I can't rush, I rush through all of them.”
Brees threw a 1-yard scoring pass to Ben Watson in the first quarter and added a 44-yard touchdown pass to Graham in the second quarter. Garrett Hartley's 41-yard field goal in the third quarter produced the only second-half points for either team.
Atlanta staged a strong 10-play touchdown drive on its first possession and didn't reach the end zone again despite giving the Saints one final scare in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons took possession at their 9 with 7:53 remaining and moved all the way to the Saints 29 as Ryan threw passes over the middle to Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas.
Jordan's final sack pushed Atlanta back 5 yards and helped set up a missed 52-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with a little more than 2 minutes remaining. The Saints ran off all but the last 5 seconds.
“I thought the stop late in the game and then being able to control the clock there at the end, we made some big plays,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Atlanta (2-9) has lost five straight games to ensure its first losing season since 2007.
“On the one hand I think we did pretty good just surrendering 17 points to an explosive offense,” said Atlanta safety William Moore. “We just didn't make enough plays as a whole to pull out the victory.”
Coach Mike Smith said he thought the Falcons played “much better” than in recent lopsided losses to Tampa Bay, Seattle and Carolina.
“I thought we responded to some momentum changes, to some adversity in the football game, but still not enough,” Smith said. “When you don't win, it's not good enough.”
Here are five things we learned as the Saints continue to challenge Seattle for the best record in the NFC and the Falcons took their fifth straight loss:
JACKSON SCORES: Steven Jackson had 16 carries for 63 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown run – his first with Atlanta. He has struggled at times since returning from a hamstring injury that forced him to miss four games, but he looked strong by opening the game with two straight 8-yard gains.
The Falcons managed only a modest 91 yards rushing, but Jackson said he saw positive signs.
“I thought we saw improvement in the run game,” Jackson said. “I thought the offensive line did a good job of coming out fast and giving me some room.”
SAINTS AVOID MISTAKES: Brees completed 23 of 33 passes for 278 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and the Saints also did not lose a fumble. The only turnover for either team was a lost fumble by Falcons receiver Darius Johnson, an undrafted rookie.
THREE WINS IN 12 DAYS: The Saints beat Dallas, San Francisco and Atlanta in a span of 12 days, beginning with a 49-17 win over the Cowboys on Nov. 10. Now they get a break before playing Seattle on a Monday night game on Dec. 2.
“It says that this is the time of year when you have to be your best and you have to find a way to navigate the schedule,” Brees said. “We knew this was going to be a difficult task, but obviously we were able to get three wins.”
GRAHAM, THOMAS PRODUCE: New Orleans held out running back Darren Sproles, who missed practice on Tuesday and Wednesday with ankle and knee injuries. Thomas helped fill the void with 10 carries for 73 yards and five catches for 57 yards.
Graham led the Saints with five catches for 100 yards. He dragged Moore the final few yards into the end zone for the 44-yard touchdown. The big tight end then celebrated with a dunk over the crossbar.
SLOW GOING FOR WHITE: White had only two catches for 24 yards. He has a combined six catches in his three games back in the lineup after missing three games with ankle and hamstring injuries.
The Falcons instead relied on Johnson, who had six catches for 67 yards, and Douglas, who led the team with nine catches for 79 yards.