Defending Super Bowl champs clinch return trip to postseason

ATLANTA - After making two throws in the fourth quarter that he wishes never left his hand, Drew Brees connected on the one that really counted for the New Orleans Saints.

Brees shook off a pair of interceptions in the final period, hooking up with rookie Jimmy Graham on a 6-yard touchdown with 3 minutes, 24 seconds remaining to give New Orleans a 17-14 victory over Atlanta on Monday night.

Brees and the Saints prevented the Falcons from clinching the NFC South title and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

And Who Dat going back to the playoffs? That would be the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, who should get a boost of confidence from this victory.

The Falcons (12-3), meanwhile, might be having some doubts after their eight-game winning streak at the Georgia Dome was snapped.

Still, the loss doesn’t ruin Atlanta’s two main goals. The Falcons can still wrap up their first division crown since 2004 and home field through the NFC playoffs by knocking off two-win Carolina at home Sunday.

But this one stung, especially since there’s a possibility these teams will meet again in the playoffs.

“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 one seed.”

Brees completed six consecutive passes on a 13-play, 90-yard drive, the last one to the rookie tight end for the winning score.

That made up for Brees’ attempt to flip a backhanded pass, but instead the throw was picked off by Chauncey Davis and returned 26 yards for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth, giving the Falcons their first lead of the game.