NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints’ 31-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night was less dominant than their most recent wins.
And in at least one way that was more impressive.
The Saints had set a franchise record by scoring at least 45 points in three consecutive games – beating the Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles in succession.
They had routed the Bengals (51-14) and the Eagles (48-7) primarily by setting an early scoring pace that their opponents couldn’t keep up with.
But the Falcons kept the Saints scoring at manageable pace – if they had been able to score with any regularity early on. But they couldn’t.
New Orleans defense stymied the Atlanta offense from the start, enabling the Saints to stay in command throughout even as the offense, though efficient and effective, wasn’t able to sustain the scoring pace of previous weeks.
“We’ve played some good offenses,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Cincinnati’s a good offense. The Eagles are a good offense. I feel like we’re playing a complementary game. Tonight was no different.”
The Saints created four turnovers and sacked Matt Ryan six times as they led wire to wire in sweeping the season series from their long-time rivals while officially eliminating them from the NFC South race.
New Orleans, which will hold at least a three-game lead over second-place Carolina after the Panthers home game against Seattle on Sunday, is 10-1 after winning its 10th consecutive game. The only other Saints team to win as many as 10 in a row was the 2009 team, which started 13-0 on its way to winning New Orleans’ only Super Bowl.
That team’s winning streak came to an end against Dallas and this team’s next game is in Dallas next Thursday. That begins a three-game road trip.
“Every week I hear someone say, ‘They’re getting ready for the tough stretch of their schedule,’” Payton said. “Shoot, all of these games are tough.”
The defense set the tone against the Falcons and the offense was more methodical than explosive. Nonetheless, Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes – to four different undrafted free agents (Tommylee Lewis, Austin Carr, Dan Arnold and Keith Kirkwood) no less.
“I love that stat,” Brees said.
It was the first career touchdown for both Arnold and Kirkwood.
“It shows a true credit to this organization that guys can come in and work,” Kirkwood said. “Even undrafted guys can come in and have an opportunity and step up to the plate. A lot of undrafted guys stepped up tonight.”
Brees completed 15 of 22 for 171 yards, though he did throw his second interception of the season.
“A day where he throws for under 200 yards is usually the kind you sign up for,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, “but what you don’t want are four touchdown passes.”
Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple had fumble recoveries and A.J. Klein made an interception for New Orleans.
Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan had two sacks and Sheldon Rankins, Demario Davis, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams had one each.
The Falcons had just 26 yards on 16 rushes.
“We made them one-dimensional,” Klein said. “By the time the third and fourth quarter rolls around, they’re in passing personnel. We still don’t want to give up that many passing yards.
“But to get them into third and fourth and longs is big. They’re taking more and more chances.”
The Saints led 17-3 at halftime and took control when Brees threw a 25-yard touchdown to Arnold midway through the third quarter.
Ryan, who finished 35 of 47 for 377 yards, threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to rookie Calvin Ridley to cut the lead to 24-10 after three quarters.
Brees’ 5-yard scoring pass to Kirkwood early in the fourth quarter and Ryan’s 4-yard scoring pass to Tevin Coleman with 1:51 left completed the scoring. Julio Jones caught 11 of Ryan’s passes for 147 yards.
The Saints scored a touchdown on their first possession for the fifth consecutive game as Brees threw a 28-yard scoring pass to Lewis, who was just activated from injured reserve Wednesday.
Damontae Kazee intercepted Brees on New Orleans’ second possession, leading to Matt Bryant’s 32-yard field goal.
Wil Lutz’s 22-yard field goal and Brees’ 12-yard scoring pass to Carr gave New Orleans its 17-3 halftime lead.