ATLANTA -- The New Orleans Saints were not going to give up their NFC South crown without a fight. The Saints (11-4) came into the Georgia Dome on Monday night, where the Atlanta Falcons have managed to pull out one close win after another, and beat the Falcons 17-14.
Atlanta (12-3) is in the playoffs, but the Falcons will have to wait until next week's game with the Carolina Panthers to win and claim the division title. New Orleans (11-4) secured a wild card berth with the victory and they did it with a defense that stymied the Falcons attack in the second half.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees took his team 90 yards in 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, a 6-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with 3:24 to play.
It was just the second home loss for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in three seasons.
Early, there was a nasty culture to the game, which was expected given the comments from Atlanta receiver Roddy White during the week. He called the Saints the "Aints" and it caused a storm.
The only time it got really serious was when Ryan took a helmet-first hit after a slide to the ground following a run in the first half. But in the second half it was just hard hitting. The posturing stopped; the football commenced.
Some thoughts on the game:
• There were some costly turnovers in the fourth quarter. Brees threw an interception that was returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Chauncey Davis, that gave the Falcons a 14-10 lead. Brees threw another interception on the next New Orleans possession, but after that he did not screw up again. He led the winning drive and watched his defense preserve it.
• Falcons running back Michael Turner fumbled at the New Orleans' 1-yard line in the third quarter, which was costly. It was not a good night for Turner, who managed just 48 yards on 17 carries.
• The Falcons came out to pound the football with the run game and the Saints met Turner with numbers on first down. New Orleans, which gave up 153 yards rushing to Baltimore's Ray Rice last week, was not going to be gashed.
• Atlanta refused to throw the ball on first down. Perhaps, Mike Mularkey, the offensive coordinator, was going to be stubborn about it to 1) wear down the linebacker-thin Saints for the fourth quarter and 2) set up the play-action in the second half.
• The Falcons kept finding themselves in bad plays on third down and converted just 1 of 6 third downs in the first half (17 percent), 3 of 12 for the game (25 percent).
• The Atlanta defense met the challenge against the Saints offense. The Falcons kept getting pressure on Brees with some looks of pressure up the middle while safety William Moore was the one flying in from the outside.
• The Saints were 3 of 10 on third down in the middle of the third quarter because of the pressure on Brees. New Orleans led 10-7. They kept making Brees move off his spot in the pocket, but the Saints would improve to 8 for 17 by game's end.
• The Falcons players in coverage would not be fooled by Brees looking them off and coming back to the receiver. The New Orleans quarterback is clever with his looks away and defensive backs will bite and lose coverage. The Falcons played that well.
• The Falcons had rotten field position for most of the game. On their first 10 possessions, the average starting position was the 20-yard line. That is tough sledding for any offense.
• What makes Brees a seasoned pro? In the third quarter Moore rushed to the line to blitz. Brees stopped his cadence. He reached out and hit Reggie Bush on the arm in the backfield. Moore was forced to retreat, but Brees knew the blitz was on. Here came Moore. Bush just got a slight chip on Moore, which allowed Brees to complete a 14-yard pass for a first down.
• The Saints came into the game leading the NFL in third down conversions (49 percent), but they failed on their first three. The Falcons did not just win third down in those series, but the Falcons defense won against the short field. New Orleans punted from its 45 and 47 after getting favorable field position. The Saints finally converted with a short field following a 26-yard punt by Michael Koenen.
• Is that you Garrett Hartley? The New Orleans field goal kicker, who missed a 29-yard field on Sept. 26 that would have beaten the Falcons in overtime, kicked a 52-yard field goal following the poor Koenen kick. Hartley, who lost his job briefly during the season, had made eight straight with that kick. Coach Sean Payton insisted his young kicker was not in danger of losing his job, but the team just wanted him to take a step back and get his mechanics right. Looks like it worked.
• You know this is a big game if the Falcons' fans show up early. They showed up early. The upper deck end zone seats, which are usually the last to fill, were occupied by the time the national anthem was being sung. Falcons coach Mike Smith made a plea for the fans to arrive early for the Thursday night game with Baltimore, but the upper deck had pockets of red. The fans arrived late. They got here early Monday, which shows the priority for this rivalry.