ATLANTA — The New Orleans Saints headed into Thursday night's showdown with the Atlanta Falcons staring down a chance to essentially clinch the NFC South with three games left to play. 

But by the time the Saints lined up for a fourth-and-short decision with the game hanging in the balance, New Orleans was trying to survive an injury-plagued, penalty-marred dogfight in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

In the final two minutes of a 20-17 loss, New Orleans could have kicked the field goal and tied the score, but Atlanta coach Dan Quinn declined a holding penalty that would have backed up the Saints, leaving the door open for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to work their magic. 

Over on the sideline, Payton and Brees made a simple decision.

"He said, 'We came here to win, so we're going for it,’” Brees said. "We felt like we can get it; if we don't get it, we still have timeouts, and if we kick it right now, we give them a lot of time to go down. So let's go win."

Brees, a master of the quarterback sneak, did not to use his patented leap, deciding instead to dive across the line for the first down.

He picked up the yardage — and for a moment, it looked like New Orleans was going to walk out of a melee in Atlanta with a win and clear control of the division. 

Drew Brees, Saints sound off on injury risks of Thursday night football

Moments later, the Falcons ripped it away. With the Saints still driving and more than a minute left, Brees fired a ball to a covered Josh Hill in the end zone, and former LSU linebacker Deion Jones made a leaping interception, sealing a win that keeps the Falcons in the NFC South race. 

New Orleans (9-4) was left to wonder about what might have been.

"It's not worth taking the risk there, especially when you know you've got points," Brees said. "It's not like you have to have a touchdown to tie or what have you. We could have kicked a field goal. Disappointed in the result there. Should have taken the points."

Atlanta (8-5) served as a litmus test for an improved Saints defense this season. 

A year ago, the Falcons shredded New Orleans in the two rivalry games between the teams, piling up 45 points in the first matchup and 38 in the second. 

Curious calls left Saints feeling they were fighting more than the Falcons in Thursday's loss

This time, the New Orleans defense made Matt Ryan work for every point, even though the Saints did struggle against the run, allowing the Falcons to rack up 132 yards on 37 carries.

Ryan, on the other hand, nearly handed the Saints the game. After Brees found Tommylee Lewis for a 26-yard touchdown to tie the score at 10 late in the second half, the Falcons had a chance to take the lead. 

Then rookie Marshon Lattimore picked off Ryan and returned the ball 33 yards, setting up a 47-yard field goal by Wil Lutz that was nullified due to an illegal formation penalty on offensive lineman Josh LeRibeus.

"I was just thinking step, step, get your arms out, this guy's going to hit you down the throat," LeRibeus said. "The last thing I thought was move up three inches. ... That's on me. I understand how important that field goal was."

New Orleans' defense nearly rendered the mistake insignificant. 

Backup safety Chris Banjo picked off Ryan again to start the second half, setting up a 1-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Michael Thomas to take a 17-10 lead, and rookie Marcus Williams ended another Atlanta drive by intercepting Ryan in the end zone. 

The Saints defense struggled against the run but largely gave their offense a chance to win. Other than the running game, New Orleans was bit mostly by penalties; Atlanta converted nine first downs by penalty, including one on Payton at the end of the game.

"I thought we fought real hard," Payton said. "I thought we played outstanding on defense. We struggled offensively to find a rhythm, had a lot of guys go down." 

After losing rookie running back Alvin Kamara to a concussion, the Saints only ran the ball 15 times, and New Orleans converted just 3 of 10 third downs. 

But the Saints still had a chance to win. 

"It's frustrating for me, because it's second down, and we've got three plays," Brees said. "You're assessing risk, and that was not a risk I should have taken. Obviously, it bit us."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.