Saints survive, stay unbeaten

NEW ORLEANS - It was anything but pretty, but the New Orleans Saints remain one of two unbeaten teams in the NFL.

The Saints scored a critical touchdown with 3 minutes, 3 seconds remaining, building an 11-point lead on Drew Brees’ 1-yard TD pass to Pierre Thomas, and they survived some anxious moments to stop the Atlanta Falcons, 35-27, on Monday night in the Louisiana Superdome.

The Saints (7-0) matched the best start in franchise history and opened their NFC South lead over the Falcons (4-3) to three games.

“Obviously it was good to get the win,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We did a lot of things well, but we did a lot of things that hurt us late in the game. We had some ball security issues. … I thought our defense made some big plays when it counted.

“I’m excited to win, and excited to get to 7-0. We’ll be ready to get back to work.”

The Saints led at halftime, 28-14, before struggling for much of the second half, and they came up with a critical interception when the Falcons threatened to take their first lead of the game in the second half.

Cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted a pass from the Falcons’ Matt Ryan just short of the goal line, and then Brees took the Saints 81 yards in 11 plays for their fifth touchdown, Thomas’ 1-yard scoring catch with 3:03 left.

The Saints would later lose their third fumble of the game and failed to recover an onside kick after the Falcons’ Jason Elam kicked a 40-yard field goal. But Darren Sharper intercepted Ryan inside the 5-yard line in the final seconds to put the game away.

“We haven’t hit the halfway point of the season,” Payton said. “Each week, we get another challenge. We’re just focusing on trying to get better.”

The Falcons played the Saints on even terms for nearly the entire first half, but the Saints again showed a flair for the dramatic just before halftime.

First, the Saints moved 80 yards in just six plays for their third touchdown, moving in front, 21-14, on Reggie Bush’s 1-yard scoring run. Brees had completions of 15, 24 and 30 yards on the drive.

Then the Falcons imploded. Second-year quarterback Ryan was intercepted on the second pass of Atlanta’s next possession, with the Saints’ Jabari Greer scoring on a 48-yard return. It was the fifth time the Saints have returned an interception for a touchdown, tying a club record set in 1998.

The Falcons scored first and took a 14-7 lead when Brees was sacked inside the 5-yard line, with the Falcons’ Kroy Biermann picking up the ball and scoring on a 4-yard return.

“We did a lot of things that can get you beat,” Payton said, “but we still found a way to get it done.”