ATLANTA (AP)—The New Orleans Saints are still perfect, which is all that matters.
They’re not the least bit worried about another close call.
Drew Brees(notes) threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns, Jonathan Vilma(notes) came up with two huge defensive plays, and the Saints pulled out another tight win, 26-23 over the pesky Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
A week ago, New Orleans (13-0) appeared on the verge of losing until Washington missed a chip-shot field goal in regulation. The Saints rallied for a 33-30 overtime win.
This time, they struggled to hold off an Atlanta team that was missing injured stars Matt Ryan(notes) and Michael Turner(notes). The result was in doubt until Vilma came up with a crushing fourth-down hit on Jason Snelling(notes), stopping him a yard short of the marker with just over a minute remaining.
New Orleans joined Indianapolis, also a winner Sunday, as one of seven NFL teams to reach 13-0. Still, these last two games have been the closest margins of a season dominated by double-digit wins.
A cause for concern?
“Why would we be concerned? We’re 13-0,” Vilma said. “You’re not going to get many blowout wins in the NFL.”
Or, as Brees said, “We call that being battle-tested.”
While lacking in style points, New Orleans set a franchise record for wins in a season, clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs and moved a step closer to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
“It’s only going to get harder from here on out,” Brees said. But “no matter what the situation, we always feel like we have an opportunity to win. Whether it’s our offense, defense or special teams, somehow we’re going to find a way to win the game.”
Atlanta still had a couple of chances to pull out an improbable victory. Vilma stopped them both.
First, the linebacker dropped into coverage to pick off a pass that Chris Redman(notes), filling in again for Ryan, intended for Roddy White(notes) over the middle. The Saints failed to score any points off that miscue, attempting a fake field goal that didn’t work.
The Falcons were trying to get into field-goal range when they faced fourth-and-2 at the New Orleans 46. Redman threw short to Snelling, but Vilma plastered the running back for only a 1-yard gain. Atlanta had run the very same play out of the same formation earlier in the game, so Vilma read it all the way.
The Saints’ defense gave up 392 yards and forced only one Atlanta punt, but it didn’t cost them.
“We always want them to put it on our shoulders at the end of the game,” Vilma said.
The Falcons (6-7) lost for the sixth time in eight games and their playoff hopes are all but over. They will need to win out to avoid extending one of the most unwanted streak in sports—Atlanta has never had consecutive winning seasons during its 44-year history.
As for the Saints, they’re chasing history. Three more wins to go for a perfect regular season, something that only three other teams have done.
“It means a lot to us,” Brees said. “These kind of years don’t come around very often.”
The Saints appeared to be pulling away when Brees hooked up with Bush on a 21-yard score to cap the opening possession of the second half, pushing New Orleans to a 23-9 lead.
Bush, who had missed two games because of a knee injury before playing sparingly against the Redskins, also had a 6-yard scoring pass. He dove and stuck out the ball with his left arm to get it inside the pylon.
Atlanta made a game of it. Michael Jenkins(notes) hauled in a 50-yard touchdown pass from Redman, the Falcons’ defense forced New Orleans’ lone punt of the game, and Snelling powered in from the 4 to tie it at 23 with 12:56 remaining.
Back came Brees and the Saints. Looking as though they intended to run off most of the clock, they put together their longest drive of the game, a 16-play, 63-yard march that finally stalled at the Atlanta 20 after an intentional grounding call on Brees.
Hartley, who had earlier missed an extra point, knocked through his second field goal to put the Saints ahead for good.
Redman was 23 of 34 for 303 yards but got little help from the ground game with Turner out. Snelling was the top rusher with 37 yards on 10 carries.
NOTES: With Turner on the sideline, the Falcons were held below 100 yards rushing for the fourth week in a row. They went over 100 yards in six of their first nine games. … Brees tied Aaron Brooks’(notes) franchise record with his final TD pass, the 120th of his Saints career.