ATLANTA -- Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints' defense took care of business with a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, setting up a crucial showdown next week against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks.
Brees, New Orleans' quarterback, threw two touchdown passes, including a 44-yard strike to tight end Graham in the second quarter, leading the Saints to their sixth victory in their past seven meetings with the Falcons. Graham finished with five catches for 100 yards and his 10th touchdown of the season.
The Saints (9-2) head to Seattle to face the Seahawks (10-1) in a game that could end up determining the top seed in the NFC playoffs. New Orleans leads the Carolina Panthers (7-3) by a 1 1/2 games in the NFC South. The division rivals will square off twice in December.
"We felt going into this game we knew it was going to be a challenge," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It is every time we play them. It was a good win for us, and we will enjoy it for now and get ready with a little bit of extended time for the next game."
Atlanta (2-9) lost its fifth consecutive game and was mathematically eliminated from the NFC South race.
"I thought we responded to some momentum changes, to some adversity in the football game, but still not good enough," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "We you don't win, it's not good enough."
The improved New Orleans defense kept Atlanta out of the end zone the final three quarters and ended quarterback Matt Ryan's 16-game streak with at least one touchdown pass. The Saints sacked Ryan five times.
"Entirely too many pressures on the quarterback in the football game tonight," Smith said about the play of the Falcons' offensive line. "We've got to make sure we're putting them in their best positions as a coaching staff in terms of the things that we're asking them to do."
Still, Atlanta was down only four and driving at the start of the fourth quarter. Saints linebacker Keyunta Dawson stripped Falcons wide receiver Darius Johnson, and cornerback Corey White recovered the fumble inside the Saints' 20-yard line to thwart Atlanta's best scoring chance of the second half.
The Falcons' defense also played well, holding the Saints to three points in the second half, but the offense couldn't deliver a go-ahead score.
Ryan completed 30 of 39 passes for 297 yards.
Brees finished 23 of 33 for 278 yards and orchestrated a balanced attack that gained 103 yards on the ground.
What the Saints said
"It was very big. Every time we play Atlanta, it is going to be a big, physical game. We know that. We got them. We are 2-0 on these guys, and we feel good." -- Running back Pierre Thomas.
What the Falcons said
"We just keep coming up short. As a veteran on this team, I have to be a leader and keep telling the guys to stay positive and keep working. I feel like we will turn around as long as we keep putting in the necessary work. It's only a matter of time." -- Safety William Moore.
What we learned about the Saints
1. The running game is emerging, making the Saints' offense even more dangerous. Pierre Thomas rushed for 73 yards and Mark Ingram added 32. The Saints are averaging 100 rushing yards during their current three-game win streak.
2. Corey White started in place of cornerback Jabari Greer, who tore his ACL on Sunday in a win over the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons went after White often and completed some balls against the second-year corner out of Samford. Teams are going to continue to pick on White, so he will need to develop quickly.
What we learned about the Falcons
1. The Falcons will be looking to pinpoint some young players with potential as they play out the season. Wide receiver Darius Johnson appears to be one of those players. Johnson caught six passes for 67 yards, but he did have a costly fumble in New Orleans territory early in the fourth quarter. Johnson and wide receiver Harry Douglas both stepped up since top wideout Julio Jones was lost to a foot injury in early October.
2. Running back Steven Jackson had a season-high 63 yards and scored his first rushing touchdown of the season in the loss to the Saints. The veteran was a prized offseason acquisition for the Falcons, but he struggled to stay healthy in the early part of the season, and the ground game suffered. Atlanta is ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards per game.