ATLANTA — In the 16 times the Sean Payton-era Saints have met the Atlanta Falcons, the games have almost always been close, and New Orleans almost always has won.
Nothing changed when the teams met at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night and the Saints beat Atlanta 17-13.
Because of that, the Saints (9-2) have positioned themselves about as well as they could hope as they prepare to travel to Seattle on Dec. 2 and fight for postseason home-field advantage against the Seahawks (10-1), the NFC front-runner.
They’ll also try to fend off Carolina, which is 7-3 and not far behind New Orleans in the race for the NFC South title.
“All (games are) big,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “But obviously we understand the implications of this game.”
Before Thursday, Payton was 11-2 against Atlanta — and 5-1 there — since taking charge of the Saints in 2006. Since that year, the Saints were 12-3 against Atlanta; the divisional rivals split meetings when Payton was suspended for the 2012 season in the wake of the team’s bounty scandal.
But eight of the previous 11 encounters between Falcons coach Mike Smith and the Saints were decided by eight points or fewer. So it was no surprise when the Saints — after a missed Falcons field goal — received possession of the ball at their 42 with 2:19 left, and they were only ahead 17-13.
The Saints moved 20 yards on the next eight plays, leaving just 5 seconds on the clock when they turned it over on downs. Atlanta (2-9) tried to get a miracle score by throwing a series of desperate laterals, but they quickly threw one forward, drawing a penalty that ended the game.
“It always comes down to the wire with these guys,” Saints running back Pierre Thomas said. “You have to give it to them.”
Before that, Brees was 23-of-33 for 278 yards and two touchdowns against a defense giving up the NFL’s sixth-most total yards (381.0) and fourth-most points per game (29.2). He did so without two of his best players, right guard Jahri Evans and running back Darren Sproles, who were out injured.
Against a defense that was giving up the third-most yards per game on the ground (132.7), the Saints rushed for a respectable 103 yards on 25 carries. They were led by Thomas, who had 73 yards on 10 attempts for an excellent 7.3 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, the Saints defense followed the same recipe it had all season to enter the game as the unit allowing the NFL’s fourth-fewest total yards (305.4), third-fewest passing yards (191.4) and fifth-fewest points (18.3). They sacked quarterback Matt Ryan five times — 2.5 by defensive end Cameron Jordan, 1.5 by defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and 0.5 each by linebackers Keyunta Dawson and Parys Haralson.
Then, thanks to Dawson, they caused a fourth-quarter turnover that robbed Atlanta of a valuable scoring opportunity.
Ryan finished with 292 yards on 30-of-39 passing but no TDs, and he was sacked for a total loss of 28 yards. He came in with the eighth-most TDs in the NFL (18) and had been in command of a seventh-ranked passing game that was amassing 286.6 yards per game.
A rushing attack that was ranked second-worst in the league at 73.1 yards per game rushed 22 times for 91 yards and a touchdown, but that won’t bother New Orleans.
The Falcons scored on three of their four drives. Steven Jackson barreled in for a 1-yard TD with 8:48 left in the first quarter to put Atlanta up 7-0. Jackson finished with 63 of Atlanta’s yards on 16 carries.
Atlanta then got field goals of 39 yards and 24 yards from kicker Matt Bryant before punting for the first time with 1:47 to go in the second quarter. Meanwhile, New Orleans had three-and-outs on its first and fourth drives. But in between, Brees found tight ends Benjamin Watson and Jimmy Graham for TDs of 1 and 44 yards.
The TD to Watson, on third-and-goal, tied the score at 7. It was the tight end’s second score of the year, and he had just returned from sitting out the Saints’ win against San Francisco with a concussion.
The score to Graham (five catches for 100 yards) landed on highlight reels the world over. Graham juked and ran past the Falcons’ William Moore, then caught a pass from Brees several yards from the goal-line.
Moore tried to wrap Graham up, but the tight end hauled himself and the safety into the end zone for his 11th TD of the year, tying a career high he set two seasons ago.
“We’re not where we want to be in terms of ... explosive plays,” Smith said about failing to stop Graham. “When you give up an explosive play, you’re going to give up points on that drive.”
That made the score 14-10, which Atlanta cut into with Bryant’s second field goal. After the Falcons punted twice and the Saints punted once in the second half, New Orleans drove 55 yards on nine plays to set up Garrett Hartley for a 41-yard field goal, which he made with 4:37 left in the third quarter.
With 13:07 left, Atlanta had driven to the Saints’ 22 and, on second-and-8, Ryan threw a short pass to Darius Johnson in the left flat. Johnson caught the ball and turned to run upfield, but Dawson stripped him, causing only the second fumble of his six-year career.
Corey White scooped the ball up at New Orleans’ 13 for the first fumble recovery of his two-year career. But New Orleans could only move 40 yards on its next nine plays before needing to punt.
It mattered little. The Falcons set up Bryant for a 52-yard field goal, but he missed wide left — only his second miss in 19 tries this season.