ATLANTA // Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints showed the high-flying Atlanta Falcons that they are not ready to give up on their title defence.
Facing a team that had won eight in a row and was poised to lock up the division title and home-field advantage in the NFC play-offs, New Orleans rallied for a 17-14 victory over the Falcons on Monday night and clinched a place in the play-offs.
Atlanta (12-3) failed to take advantage of a chance to demonstrate they are the best team in the NFC and not just the luckiest.
Despite throwing a pair of costly fourth-quarter interceptions, Brees came through when it counted. The reigning Super Bowl MVP led a 90-yard drive that ended with a short touchdown pass to rookie Jimmy Graham with just over three minutes to play.
The Saints (11-4) sent a message to a team they might see again in the play-offs. "It feels good," Brees said. "You just want to punch your ticket to the big show, and we've done that. Obviously Carolina needs to beat Atlanta next week so we can get that No 1 seed."
Brees added that having to recover from a slow start to the season would be a help for the play-offs.
"Here we are, having won seven of eight," he said. "It doesn't matter whether we're playing on the road or at home. We're battle-tested."
Atlanta had been 19-3 inside the Goergia Dome during the three season of Mike Smith's tenure as coach. Handing the Falcons a defeat there might have been a psychological blow.
"We don't want to feel this way the rest of the season," said Matt Ryan, who lost at home for only the second time as the Falcons' quarterback. "We're going to work hard to make sure we don't."
John Abraham, the Falcons defensive end, added: "We've got to take a long look at ourselves.
The Falcons can still wrap up their first division crown since 2004 and home field through the NFC playoffs by knocking off Carolina (2-13) at home on Sunday.
The Saints shut down Ryan's two favourite receivers: Roddy White (three catches, 43 yards) and Tony Gonzalez (two receptions, 12 yards).
"We forced them to do some things they didn't want to do," Roman Harper, the New Orleans safety said. "We made them play left-handed. We disrupted their timing."
New Orleans especially enjoyed getting the best of White, who stirred up hard feelings last week with a series of inflammatory tweets, including one that referred to Hurricane Katrina.
"We didn't execute. We didn't do anything we needed to do," White said. "Our defence played well. They got those turnovers. They got us good field position, and we just didn't get the job done."
The Falcons did not play their typically efficient game.
An errant snap by Todd McClure out of the shotgun was recovered by New Orleans to set up a short touchdown run by Thomas that gave the Saints a 10-0 lead and breaking Atlanta's streak of seven straight games without a fumble.
Ryan connected with White on a seven-yard touchdown pass that made it 10-7 at the interval, but Atlanta squandered another chance when Michael Turner fumbled the ball away on second-and-goal at the New Orleans one-yard line.
It was Turner's first fumble of the season.
Brees completed 35 of 49 passes for 302 yards, easily winning the duel with Ryan (15 of 29 for 148 yards) on a night when both teams struggled to run the ball.