Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan walks off the field after throwing a game-losing interception Sunday in New Orleans. (Reuters News Service)
NEW ORLEANS — Exiled from the NFL sidelines for 20 months for his role in the Bountygate scandal, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton exacted a measure of revenge Sunday.
Payton made a triumphant return and continued his mastery over the Atlanta Falcons with a 23-17 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Falcons, on the other hand, found themselves in a nearly identical position they were in during the waning moments of last year’s NFC Championship game against the 49ers when they were mere yards away from scoring the winning touchdown in the final seconds. And just like last year in the NFC title game, an Atlanta game-winning drive stalled yards away from the end zone on Sunday.
In keeping with the competitive nature of the rivalry — where seven of the previous 10 meetings had come down to the final possession — this one followed suit.
Safety Roman Harper sealed the victory for the much-maligned Saints defense, which last year gave up the most yards in NFL history (7,042), by intercepting a deflected Matt Ryan pass in the end zone with 43 seconds left, blunting what looked like a miracle Atlanta rally.
“We kind of knew this game would be back and forth,” said Payton, whose last official game on an NFL sideline was an NFC divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers in January 2012. “We knew this could come down to the last possession.”
It did. Trailing 23-17, the Falcons took over at their 20 with 3:12 left. Ryan, who earlier had completed a 7-yard scoring pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez and a 4-yard score to wide receiver Julio Jones, connected on five consecutive throws to get the ball to the Saints’ 7 with 1:10 left.
On first down, he threw high in the left corner for Harry Douglas, and on second down he threw a 4-yard pass in the right flat to Roddy White.
The Falcons’ best chance to score came on third down, but Steven Jackson, normally a reliable receiver, let a touchdown pass bang off his chest under pressure from linebacker Ramon Humber.
Playing a fourth-and-goal from the 3, Ryan had to backpedal in the pocket due to heavy pressure by linebacker Curtis Lofton, an ex-Falcon. Ryan saw Gonzalez over the middle, but he couldn’t get a lot on the pass. Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro got a finger on the ball, and the pass deflected through Gonzalez’s waiting hands at the goal-line.
From there, the ball shot skyward, and Harper hauled in the interception 1 yard deep in the end zone. He was buried by his defensive teammates.
“Kenny made a play on the ball and the next thing you know, I was at the bottom of the pile,” Harper said. “At the end of the day, it’s a win.”
The victory gave Payton an 11-2 record over the Falcons since he took over the Saints in 2006. He deflected any talk about returning the sidelines after such a long absence.
“It’s just important to get that first win and get the season started that way,” Payton said
Drew Brees completed 26 of 35 passes for 357 yards, including scoring passes of 25 yards to Marques Colston in the midst of a 13-point second quarter rally and 7 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham, which put the Saints up for good, 20-17, in the third quarter.
Garrett Hartley added field goals of 48, 31 and 22 yards.
The Falcons trailed 13-10 at halftime but regained the lead on their first possession of the second half. Jackson found a gaping hole in the Saints’ defense with a cutback to the right and motored 50 yards to the New Orleans 5. Ryan put Atlanta up 17-13 with a 4-yard third-down pass on a square in by Jones, who easily beat Corey White.
But Brees then led the Saints’ most impressive drive of the game, a 10-play, 80-yard march in which he overcame an offensive holding call on left tackle Charles Brown. Brees found Sproles for a 22-yard completion on a circle route on third-and-6, and he hit Kenny Stills for 19. The payoff was a 7-yard toss to Graham, who caught the ball in the right flat and then stretched the ball over the goal-line despite a tackle attempt by safety Thomas DeCoud.