Defense propels Saints past Falcons, into playoffs
NEW ORLEANS- Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore corralled an unusual, momentum-turning interception off his back, New Orleans made two defensive stands from inside its own 2-yard line, and the Saints clinched their first playoff berth since 2013 with a 23-13 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons.
Ted Ginn caught a 54-yard pass for a touchdown, which came just a few plays after Lattimore's interception and shortly before halftime. Mark Ingram used a sharp cutback to break loose for a 26-yard touchdown for New Orleans (11-4), which kept its tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South heading into the final week of the season.
While the loss eliminated the Falcons (9-6) from the NFC South race, Atlanta can clinch a wild-card berth by beating Carolina in the final regular season game on New Year's Eve.
The Falcons entered the game with a second straight division crown in their grasp, but they needed to beat the Saints. They squandered chances spectacularly, much to the delight of a deafening Superdome crowd - and certainly to the chagrin of scattered fans wearing Falcons red. The Falcons were taunted on their way to the game by a plane towing a banner that read "28-3 Merry Xmas," a reference to Atlanta's Super Bowl collapse.
Atlanta trailed just 6-0 when Lattimore's interception of Matt Ryan set the Saints up to double their lead.
But early in the third quarter, Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a passed that deflected off of Ginn's hands and returned it 41 yards to the New Orleans 2. But Devonta Freeman fumbled on a hit by Tyeler Davison two plays later and linebacker Manti Teo recovered.
Early in the fourth quarter, Freeman was stopped short on fourth-and-goal from the 1, preserving a 20-3 Saints lead. One play earlier, Julio Jones caught a third-down pass with his feet in the end zone, but he was unable to pull the ball across the goal line after reaching back to make the catch and being quickly driven down. Atlanta challenged the spot, but the call on the field was upheld.
Drew Brees completed 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards. Ginn finished with 76 yards receiving and Michael Thomas - who'd been listed as questionable with a hamstring injury - caught four passes for 66 yards. Brees became only the third quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 70,000 career yards passing, joining Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.
Ryan was 22 of 36 for 288 yards. He was sacked five times, twice by Cameron Jordan.
Jones had seven catches for 149 yards, but the Falcons' running game struggled.
Freeman was held to just 36 yards on 11 carries.
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