November 29, 2012 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88, left) celebrates his 17-yard touchdown catch with teammates Roddy White, facing center, and Julio Jones, right, in the first half of their game at the Georgia Dome Thursday night in Atlanta, Ga., November 29, 2012. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM
Photo: Jason Getz / AJC
Photo: Jason Getz / AJC

Falcons’ defense leads way to victory over Saints

The Falcons avenged their only loss of the season Thursday night.

They jumped on their arch-rival New Orleans Saints early, and their defense held on for a 23-13 victory in front of 70,514 fans at the Georgia Dome.

The defense came up with five interceptions to derail the Saints’ potent offense as the Falcons improved to 11-1 on the season and inched closer to the NFC South division title and a playoff berth. They also ended Drew Brees’ NFL-record streak of touchdown passes.

“I think tonight, that was a really good win for our football team,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I felt our defense played a tremendous game. Anytime that you pick off five passes in a ball game. You’ve done a nice job.”

The Saints, who have been battling through “Bounty Gate” issues all season, dropped to 5-7 and are now super long shots to make the playoffs.

Saints coach Joe Vitt described their playoff hopes as “bleek” and linebacker Jon Vilma concurred with that assessment.

“We know that we have to have some other things happen with teams losing, even if we do win out,” said Vilma, one of the central characters in the “Bounty Gate” scandal. “The teams that we play over the next four weeks are pretty good. We have a very tough challenge ahead of us.”

Brees had thrown a touchdown pass in 54 straight games, breaking Johnny Unitas’ long-standing record earlier this season. He had a touchdown pass to Darren Sproles nullified by penalty.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan struggled for most of the day, but moved the offense for a key fourth-quarter field goal, a 55-yarder by Matt Bryant.

To clinch the NFC South title, the Falcons need a Denver win over Tampa Bay on Sunday. If Tampa Bay wins, the Falcons could wrap up a playoff berth with a Seattle loss or tie of a Seattle loss and a Minnesota loss.

Seattle plays at Chicago and Minnesota at Green Bay on Sunday.

“I thought our guys showed a ton of resiliency throughout the entire football game,” Smith said.  “We entered tonight’s game wanting to get a positive result and get mission 11 accomplished and I thought we did that.”

Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud both turn in solid games. Moore had two interceptions and DeCoud had one.  Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Jonathan Babineaux also had interceptions.

“I give all the credit to coach (Mike) Nolan for his excellent game plan, tonight,” Moore said. ” He’s a heck of a defensive coordinator, and it was on full display in this game. This defense showed up against an excellent player in Drew Brees.”

DeCoud also covered tight end Jimmy Graham, who abused the Falcons in the previous meeting, a 31-27 loss on Nov. 11.

“I won’t say revenge, but it’s a division game and they beat us the first time, so we had to get our get back,” DeCoud said.

The Falcons, who held a 17-7 halftime lead, made a statement on their opening drive.

After a pass completion to Tony Gonzalez for 9 yards, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter dialed up five consecutive power running plays.

Running back Michael Turner ripped off gains of 35 and 5 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers took over with consecutive gains of 14 yards, the latter being on a nice cut-back run inside.

Turner then came back in and slammed into the end zone on a 3-yard run to set a franchise record with the 58th touchdown of his Falcons career. Bryant’s extra-point kick made the score 7-0.

On the Saints’ first drive, Brees got greedy. He tried to hit wide receiver Marques Colston in the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown, but DeCoud intercepted the pass.

Both offenses were held twice and forced to punt, before the Falcons mounted another touchdown drive.

Ryan, who passed for a season-low 165 yards, tossed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez to cap a five-play, 49-yard drive.

After an exchange of punts, Weatherspoon, who did not play in the previous meeting, intercepted a Brees pass intended for running back Chris Ivory and returned it to New Orleans 29.

After a 2-yard run by Turner and two incomplete passes, Bryant made a 45-yard field goal to put the Falcons up 17-0.

The Saints answered with an 11-play, 80-yard drive. On the march, the Saints converted on third-and-9, third-and-8 and third-and-3. The last one was a conversion by penalty after defensive end Kroy Biermann lined up in the neutral zone.

Saints running back Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard run with 3:25 left in the second quarter.

Ryan and the offense stalled for the third consecutive possession, but the Saints used their last timeout with 2:24 left, and that would come back to haunt them.

Brees opened the key drive with 29-yard strike to Lance Moore followed by a 21-yarder to Colston in the middle of the Falcons’ zone. But the drive stalled at the Falcons’ 3-yard line in part because the Saints had no timeouts left.

After completed a pass to Darren Sproles, Brees couldn’t get the ball spiked in time to stop the clock.

“That was huge, very big,” Smith said. “We got off the field with no points in that situation because we were reeling a little bit there in the second quarter in terms of getting some stops.”

With the Falcons’ offense stymied, the Saints added fields goals by Garrett Hartley of 21 and 52 yards on their first two possessions of the second half to make the score 17-13 with 3:53 left in third quarter.

After another quick three-and-out by the Falcons, Moore intercepted Brees and returned it to the Saints’ 41-yard line.

Ryan and the offense, like they have several times this season, went to Gonzalez to get moving. After the loss of a yard on a run by Rodgers, Ryan tossed an 18-yard pass to Gonzalez followed by a 20-yard to Roddy White to move to the 4-yard line.

Turner lost two yards on first down and Gonzalez had a false start to push the ball back to the 11. A pass for Jason Snelling sailed on Ryan. His third-down pass for White was incomplete. Bryant made a 29-yard field goal to make the score 20-13 with 14:48 left in the game.

The Saints went back on the move and were down to the Falcons’ 36-yard line. On third-and-5, defensive end John Abraham sacked Brees for a 6-yard loss and knocked the Saints out of field-goal range.

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