The game-sealing carry provided the perfect punctuation for the Saints’ undrafted, second-year running back following the most important performance of his young career.
Thomas rushed for 102 yards and scored two touchdowns, helping New Orleans keep alive slim playoff hopes with a 29-25 victory over division rival Atlanta on Sunday.
“He’s a great young talent. He comes up big for us when need be,” Saints fullback Mike Karney said. “He had to earn his way and get a feel for what’s going on. He’s done that and the coaches are going to him.”
Thomas scored his first touchdown on a 7-yard screen early in the fourth quarter. He powered in for the winning touchdown on a 5-yard toss sweep, bouncing over offensive lineman Carl Nicks as he stretched for the goal line. Thomas also set up that last score with an 88-yard kickoff return after Matt Ryan’s 12-yard scramble had given the Falcons a 25-22 lead with 7:51 to go.
New Orleans needed a clutch carry from Karney on that drive as well. Saints coach Sean Payton decided against trying a tying field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 7. The 5-foot-11, 255-pound Karney pushed the line of scrimmage for 2 yards.
“The line did a great job up front and I was able to ride the wave and get that yard,” Karney said.
Reggie Bush added 80 yards rushing, including a career-long 43-yard run that set up his 5-yard touchdown catch.
Drew Brees was 18-of-32 for 230 yards and two TDs in one of the most balanced performances this season by New Orleans’ normally pass-heavy offense. The Saints (7-6) finished with a season-high 184 yards rushing.
The Saints rushed 18 times for only 44 yards in a 23-20 loss at Tampa Bay a week earlier. Payton pledged more balance against Atlanta (8-5).
“We wanted to make that a point, that we could run the ball on these guys,” Thomas said. “(Payton) had faith in us to run the ball hard. We took it to ‘em.”
Late last season, Thomas made his first start in his hometown of Chicago (where New Orleans also plays on Thursday) and became the only Saint to eclipse 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. That was in a loss that formally eliminated New Orleans from the playoffs.
Thomas didn’t rush for 100 yards again until Sunday’s win.
Ryan was 24-for-33 for 315 yards, one touchdown and an interception by Jason David, whose 23-yard return to midfield led to Bush’s TD in the first quarter.
“I can’t make those kind of mistakes when we’re moving the ball and about to score points,” Ryan said. “Obviously we’re frustrated with the outcome. But this team hasn’t given up all year. … We still have everything that we want in front of us. We’re capable of getting into the playoffs.”
The Saints’ defense, bolstered by a court ruling allowing end Will Smith to play, limited Turner to 61 yards on 18 carries and held Atlanta to 99 yards rushing as a team.
Friday’s ruling also allowed Saints running back Deuce McAllister to suit up. The players, and Minnesota defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, had been suspended for the final four regular-season games for violating the NFL’s anti-doping policy. The NFLPA sued, however, and a judge temporarily blocked the suspensions while the case proceeds.
Smith was in on six tackles, including one for a 5-yard loss. McAllister entered the game in the second quarter on third-and-1, drawing cheers from the crowd. He was stopped for no gain, leading to Garrett Hartley’s 26-yard field goal for a brief 10-0 lead before Turner’s TD.
Hartley later added a 46-yarder, but Atlanta responded with a 77-yard drive for a 14-13 lead. Ryan completed five passes for 64 yards, the last a 2-yard pass that Brian Finneran caught acrobatically along the sideline. Payton compounded the damage for New Orleans with a failed challenge, which left the Saints with no timeouts for the final 2:13 of the half.
New Orleans drove to Atlanta’s 7, but had to settle for Hartley’s 25-yard field goal for a 16-14 lead as the half ended.
Saints CB Randall Gay left in the first quarter with a concussion. … Kickoff returner Courtney Roby left with a right ankle injury in the third quarter. … Thomas took kickoff returns in the fourth quarter, but credited blockers on his long return, adding, “If Roby was in there it would have been a touchdown. I’m a little too slow.” … Hartley has made all 11 field goal attempts since joining the Saints five games ago. … NFC South teams are 23-2 overall at home and 9-0 in home divisional games. The Saints are 6-1 at home, including their victory over San Diego in London as the designated home team … The Falcons have yet to win a game (0-4) in which they failed to score first.