The New Orleans Saints fortified their lead in the NFC South by beating their division rival the Atlanta Falcons 17-13 at the Georgia Dome on Thursday evening.
Both offenses were balanced, but in this rematch of the season opener, the Saints' superior defense turned out to be the difference.
Drew Brees led the charge for New Orleans, completing 23 of 33 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns, and improving his record to 13-3 against the Falcons as the Saints' quarterback. He also made NFL history during the game:
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high five times, while a costly fourth-quarter fumble by undrafted rookie free agent Darius Johnson deep in New Orleans territory doomed the home team.
The play illustrated the massive turnaround the Saints have seen on the defensive side of the ball this season, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Things started off well enough for the Falcons, as Steven Jackson plunged in from one yard out to finish off a 10-play, 76-yard scoring drive to give Atlanta an early 7-0 lead. That was after the Saints went three-and-out on the game's opening possession.
But Brees came back with an emphatic response, orchestrating a brilliant drive that was capped off by a one-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin Watson. That may have irked Jimmy Graham's fantasy owners, but the Saints' superstar tight end would get his before the evening ended.
New Orleans got physical and established the run with Pierre Thomas, who had a stellar game as a pass-catcher, too. B/R's Mike Freeman provided his thoughts on the job the Falcons' 30th-ranked rush defense was doing:
Then Graham started being a beast. He obliterated the secondary on this double-move for a 44-yard touchdown catch, nearly taking the goal post down on a thunderous slam dunk:
That touchdown was sandwiched by a couple of Matt Bryant field goals for Atlanta, and New Orleans held only a 14-13 advantage at halftime. However, Garrett Hartley banged one through the uprights from 41 yards out with 4:42 left in the third quarter.
Considering the excellence of the two QBs on display in this divisional encounter, it was a surprise that Hartley's field goal was the last score of the game. Ryan, who has 23 career game-winning drives (h/t Pro-Football-Reference.com), could not summon the magic against Atlanta's division rival.
The Johnson fumble at the beginning of the fourth quarter stung, yet Ryan, starting with his worst field position of the night, drove Atlanta from its own 9-yard line into field-goal range for Bryant. But the veteran kicker missed from 52 yards out, and the Falcons failed to cut into the deficit.
All that was left for Brees to do was hand the ball to Thomas and Mark Ingram to run out the clock.
The Saints improved to 9-2 and stretched their division lead to 1.5 games over the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons fell to 2-9.
Below is a closer look at the top performers from this contest, along with a brief peek ahead to what's next for each team.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons: B+
The dearth of playmakers has all but crushed the Falcons' season and has to be eating at Ryan's resolve.
But Matty Ice didn't back down from doing battle with one of the league's premier pass defenses. New Orleans defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, was in a position—with Falcon playmakers Roddy White and Gonzalez hobbled—to throw all kinds of exotic looks at Atlanta's franchise quarterback.
Considering those circumstances, Matt Ryan put together a gutsy performance and kept his team competitive with smart decision-making and by committing no turnovers.
Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans Saints: A
Granted, the Falcons aren't very good at defending the run, but it's what Thomas did as an all-around running back that warrants his high grade.
Brees was his typical brilliant self, but that was largely because of Thomas' ability to complement him in the running game and to be an effective receiver out of the backfield.
Thomas had 10 carries for 71 yards and five receptions for 59 yards. Although he didn't have a touchdown, he kept an offense that was missing the electric, versatile Darren Sproles running smoothly in a hostile environment.
Harry Douglas, WR, Atlanta Falcons: A
There aren't many reliable weapons at Ryan's disposal, so Douglas—the QB's 2008 draft classmate—was a frequent target on Thursday night.
Even though the Saints' third-ranked pass defense knew the ball was likeliest to fly Douglas' way, the veteran receiver still made a considerable number of plays, including some key third-down receptions. He posted a team-high nine catches and 79 yards on 11 targets.
Akiem Hicks, DE, New Orleans Saints: A-
It would be easy to highlight Graham here, but Hicks has stepped up in the past two weeks along the Saints' defensive front.
Hicks had 1.5 sacks and helped lead the effort to pressure Ryan. He was also stout against the run, helping New Orleans control the physically imposing Steven Jackson and the rest of the Falcons' rushing attack.
In accumulating eight total tackles in a mostly sound defensive effort by New Orleans, Hicks deserves recognition.
A huge road trip looms for the Saints in Week 13, as they head to CenturyLink Field to take on the Seattle Seahawks in a Monday night clash that will be huge in determining playoff seeding in the NFC.
Meanwhile, Atlanta will look to continue battling for respectability in a matchup with the Buffalo Bills, who as of Thursday lead the NFL with 37 sacks and are tied with Seattle for the league lead with 16 interceptions.