The Atlanta Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half and their defense forced five turnovers in defeating the New Orleans Saints 23-13 on Thursday night.
Atlanta used their running game to take an early lead as Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers would combine for five carries for 71 yards on the Falcons' six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession of the game. The Saints would respond, moving down to the Falcons' 37-yard line before Drew Brees was intercepted in the end zone by safety Thomas DeCoud.
The Falcons would increase their lead early in the second quarter when Matt Ryan hit future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez for a 17-yard touchdown. For Gonzalez, it was his seventh touchdown of the 2012 season and No. 102 of his 16-year career. Atlanta would add a 45-yard field goal midway through the second quarter after Brees threw a pass slightly behind running back Chris Ivory who knocked the ball into the air and the awaiting arms of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
New Orleans would respond, driving 80 yards in 11 plays before Mark Ingram would punch the ball into the end zone for 1-yard out. The Saints had an opportunity to put even more points on the scoreboard before halftime, but an offensive pass interference penalty on tight end Jimmy Graham negated a 7-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Darren Sproles. Questionable time management in a sequence where Brees dumped a pair of passes off over the middle to Sproles resulted in the final 45 seconds running off the clock without the Saints putting any points on the scoreboard.
After coming up empty at the end of the first half, New Orleans needed a scoring drive at the start of the third quarter. Brees and 38 rushing yards from running back Pierre Thomas drove the Saints down to the Falcons' 7-yard line, setting up a 21-yard field goal from Garrett Hartley, who would add a 52-yard field 4 1/2 minutes later to cut the deficit to four points after the Saints' defense forced a three-and-out.
That would be the closest the Saints would get as the Falcons defense would pressure Brees, forcing three interceptions, including two by safety William Moore, over the final 17:49. Moore's first interception and 16-yard return to the Saints' 41-yard line gave the Falcons excellent field position, resulting in a 29-yard field by Matt Bryant early in the fourth quarter. The Saints would reach the Falcons' 32-yard line on the next possession, but a 4-yard loss by Thomas was followed by John Abraham blowing by right tackle Zach Strief for a 6-yard sack of Brees, knocking the Saints out of field-goal range.
Atlanta would add a 55-yard field by Bryant, capping off an 11-play, 43-yard drive that ate up nearly six minutes of the fourth quarter game clock. Knowing the Saints needed two scores, the Falcons' defense pinned their ears back and brought heavy pressure. Defensive end Kroy Biermann hit Brees, causing his desperate attempt to get rid of the ball to be tipped and corralled by defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
New Orleans defense gave Brees another opportunity, stripping the ball out of Turner's hands as the veteran fought for additional yardage. The ball was recovered by safety Rafael Bush, who ran 71 yards for an apparent touchdown. After a replay review, Bush had been contacted by Falcons guard Mike Johnson, negating the touchdown. Taking over with 2:33 to play, Brees hit Lance Moore for 15 yards before failing to connect with Graham. Just before the two-minute warning, Brees attempted a screen pass for Sproles, which was intercepted by defensive tackle Corey Peters. That play would be nullified as Abraham was flagged for offsides. On the following play, Brees tossed up a prayer towards Lance Moore, who was well-covered by Dunta Robinson before Moore swooped in and grabbed the under thrown ball.
Brees was making the 165th start of his career and was intercepted five times for the first time in his career. Prior to Thursday night, Brees had 13 games with three or more interceptions, including two games with four interceptions. Brees completed 28 of 50 attempts for 341 yards, but was held without a touchdown, ending his NFL-record streak at 54 games.
Turner led the Falcons' offensive attack, gaining 83 yards on 12 carries while showing a burst not seen from him this season. Turner's first-quarter touchdown was his 58th as a member of the Falcons, establishing himself as the franchise's all-time leader, nudging ahead of wide receiver Terance Mathis. Rodgers added 43 yards on eight attempts. Ryan was just 18 of 33 for 165 yards, with Julio Jones his preferred target. Jones caught five passes for 48 yards, outpacing Gonzalez (4-58-1) and Jason Snelling, who had four receptions for 28 yards. Starting wide receiver Roddy White was targeted seven times, but came away with just one catch for 20 yards.
In addition to his two interceptions, William Moore had a game-high 11 tackles, including two for a loss. Among the Falcons' 12 passes defensed, Moore, Abraham and reserve cornerbacks Christopher Owens and Robert McClain had two apiece. Owens and McClain saw increased playing-time on Thursday night as Asante Samuel exited in the first quarter after aggravating a shoulder injury that had him "questionable" on the team's final injury report.
With the win, the Falcons are now 11-1 and will clinch the NFC South if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose or tie in their game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday. Even with a Buccaneers win, the Falcons can have their ticket to the postseason punched with a loss or tie from the Seattle Seahawks, who travel to the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The Saints have now lost two straight and at 5-7 their playoff hopes appear to be fading as they will hit the road to play the New York Giants in Week 14. Even if the Saints win out and get to 9-7, it may take 10 wins for a team to make the playoffs in the highly competitive NFC.