NEW ORLEANS (AP) Drew Brees closed in on the NFL single-season record for yards passing with 275 through three quarters, and he completed three touchdown passes to lift the New Orleans Saints to a 31-13 lead over the Atlanta Falcons after three quarters on Monday night.
Brees entered the fourth quarter needing only 30 yards to break Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 yards. His three touchdowns gave him 275 for his career, moving him one ahead of Joe Montana and into a tie with Vinny Testeverde for ninth all time. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 5,000 yards twice - he had 5,069 in 2008.
His first scoring pass went for 8 yards to Marques Colston and the second for 9 yards to Jimmy Graham. Graham's TD catch was his 10th of the season, a new franchise high for a tight end. In the third quarter, he hit Robert Meachem for a score from 24 yards.
The Saints also had 415 total yards in the opening half, giving them more than 6,800 offensive yards for the season, breaking the 2008 club record of 6,571 yards. New Orleans continues to close in on the NFL-record 7,075 offensive yards in a season set by the 2000 St. Louis Rams.
Brees might have broken the record in the third quarter if not for Darren Sproles' 92-yard kickoff return, which set up John Kasay's 29-yard field goal. Brees also was intercepted twice in the game, once in the Falcons end zone, but New Orleans was still dominant enough to take a three-score lead.
Matt Ryan had 258 yards passing and one TD, including a 21-yard scoring strike to Julio Jones that gave the Falcons a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter.
New Orleans responded with a 10-play, 81-yard scoring drive on which Brees completed four of six passes for 48 yards, the last three to Colston, who had six catches for 69 yards in the first half.
The Saints might have led by more if Brees' pass intended for Graham in the end zone had not been broken up by linebacker Curtis Lofton, and then batted in the air by safety William Moore before coming to rest in the arms of Dominique Franks for an interception.
New Orleans bounced back on its final drive of the second quarter, covering 80 yards in 10 plays and only 1:55, capped by the Graham's TD catch.
Both teams scored on all of their possessions in the opening quarter, with the Saints briefly pulling in front 7-3 on Pierre Thomas' 4-yard touchdown run, after which he pulled a bow from his uniform pants, put it on the football and offered it as a gift to a woman with a parasol in the front row behind the end zone.
The referees weren't cutting Thomas any slack on his Christmas-themed celebration, flagging him for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The score capped an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive on which Brees completed two passes for 49 yards.
The Saints entered the game needing only one victory to clinch the NFC South title, while Atlanta could remain in the hunt to defend its 2010 division crown with a win.
After Atlanta received the opening kickoff, Ryan completed five of his first six throws for 52 yards, including a 20-yard completion to Roddy White at the New Orleans 23. The Saints' defense stiffened, however, forcing Atlanta to settle for Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
The Saints responded immediately, with Brees hitting Lance Moore for a 38-yard gain on New Orleans' first play from scrimmage. The Saints then went to the running game, with Chris Ivory rushing one time for 11 yards and Thomas three times for 24 yards, including his short TD run.
Thomas' unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, enforced on the ensuing kickoff, was not terribly costly, as Eric Weems returned it to the Atlanta 28. More costly was the Saints' inability to slow down Ryan, who quickly found Jones for a 25-yard gain and White for 16 yards to set up the scoring pass to Jones.