NEW ORLEANS -- After losing their first four games, the New Orleans Saints seemed ready to be deep-sixed into the Mississippi River.
But after ruining the Atlanta Falcons' perfect season Sunday with a 31-27 victory in the Superdome, the Saints (4-5) believe that Drew Brees, a revived running game and an opportunistic defense can make them a dangerous out in the second half of the season.
"I feel like our best football is yet to come," said Brees, who threw three touchdown passes, including two to tight end Jimmy Graham, on 21-of-32 passing for 298 yards.
"It's a big deal when you start off 0-4, and now we have an opportunity to get to 5-5. That would be extremely impressive. That's the football we feel we're capable of. We envisioned being able to do that because of what kind of team we have."
In handing the Falcons their first loss after an 8-0 start, the Saints beat Atlanta for the 11th time in 13 games. They did it not only with Brees' arm but with a resurrected running attack that shredded the Falcons for 148 yards on 29 carries, including a 56-yard gallop by Chris Ivory that showcased his speed and stiff-arming power.
But even more impressive than the Saints erasing an early 10-0 deficit with a 28-7 spurt was a defense that, while giving up 454 yards, came up with several big plays in the red zone and in short yardage.
The Saints extended their lead to 31-27 on Garrett Hartley's 31-yard field goal with 5:54 left, but that gave Matt Ryan plenty of time to work his heroics. Starting from his 20, Ryan completed two big third-down plays to keep the drive going, and Jacquizz Rodgers raced 18 yards to the Saints' 10.
But the Falcons couldn't get any closer than the Saints' 1.
On first down, wide receiver Harry Douglas caught a pass and was spun down at the 1. Strong safety Malcolm Jenkins broke up a second-down pass for tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone, and on third down, defensive end Will Smith knifed through to trap Michael Turner for a 1-yard loss.
On fourth down, Greer broke in front of Roddy White in the back of the end zone, forcing the Falcons to hand the ball over with 1:42 left.
"I don't want to give away any secret formulas, but we saw the play on film, and fortunately we were able to make the play," Greer said.
The Falcons got the ball back one more time -- at their 31 with 37 seconds remaining -- but they could only gain nine yards in four plays.
Ryan (34 of 52 for 411 yards and three TDs) drew the Falcons within 28-27 in the fourth quarter. He hit Gonzalez for his second scoring catch of the game, capping an 11-play, 91-yard drive. Then after a quick Saints punt, Ryan hit Julio Jones for a 52-yard connection to set up Matt Bryant's 20-yard field goal.
But the field goal was little solace to the Falcons, who had a first-and-goal from the Saints' 5 and couldn't punch it in for six.
"We had two opportunities with the ball inside the 5 and came away with field goals," Ryan said. "You can't do that. We have to improve in that area."
Notes: Gonzalez caught his 100th and 101st scoring catches of his 16-year career, the most by far for any tight end in NFL history. ... Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones went down late in the first quarter with a right shin injury but returned to catch a 52-yard pass that set up Bryant's 20-yard field goal with 9:08 left. ... The Saints held Michael Turner to just 15 yards on 13 carries, and the Falcons rushed for only 46 yards overall.