METAIRIE — The Atlanta Falcons cashed in big on the Georgia Pick 5 Thursday night, leaving the New Orleans Saints’ faint playoff hopes on life support with four games remaining in the regular season.
The Falcons (11-1) took advantage of a career-high five interceptions by Saints quarterback Drew Brees to move their magic number to one in the NFC South with a 23-13 victory at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta further bruised Brees’ ego, snapping his NFL-record 54 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.
Afterward, the Super Bowl XLIV MVP quarterback took responsibility for his performance, acknowledging that he severely crippled his team’s chances of winning.
On Friday, Saints interim coach Joe Vitt, too, was reflective and humble as he addressed reporters at the team’s facility.
Vitt earnestly defended Brees and painted an optimistic picture for a 5-7 team that likely will have to run the table to reach the postseason.
“It was a bad night for our football team, not just Drew Brees,’’ said Vitt, whose record now stands at 3-3 since his return from serving a league-imposed six-game suspension for his role in the bounty scandal. “Last night was last night. Drew Brees’ body of work over the course of his time in the NFL is not going to be judged on one night, on a Thursday night in Atlanta.
“I’ll put the breaking of Johnny Unitas’ record up there with Cal Ripken’s consecutive games record ... Joe DiMaggio’s (54-game) hitting streak ... Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a game. That record is something (Brees) will have forever. I think it has guaranteed his enshrinement as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.’’
Brees didn’t play like one on a national stage Thursday night. He finished with a bottom-five, career-low passer rating of 37.6, this coming four days after throwing two pick-sixes in a 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Against Atlanta, Brees threw one interception in each of the first three quarters and two in the decisive fourth quarter, giving him a league-high 16 interceptions through 12 games.
“I couldn’t believe it,’’ Saints strong safety Roman Harper said Friday. “I’ve never seen anything like it. All I’m used to is the Drew we see on every Sunday, not a Drew who has five turnovers or things like that.
“He was just off, and the thing is, we still had a chance. We were still moving the ball up and down the field. He was still very confident in the pocket, stepping up and making throws right on target. It looked like normal Drew. But then, it would be one (bad) play, or they would make a play. That’s how it goes sometimes. Football is a weird game. Each (game) takes on its own personality. Thursday night just wasn’t our night.’’
It could have been the Saints’ night, especially the way the defense played against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Atlanta opened a 17-0 lead in the first 21 minutes, then struggled mightily over the last 21/2 quarters, converting just one of 11 third-down plays.
The Falcons managed just two field goals in the second half and finished with 283 total yards, nearly 175 yards under the Saints’ league-worst average of 454.8 going into the game. But questionable clock management at the end of the first half and Brees’ poor play proved to be a costly combination.
Now, the Saints are faced with a Herculean task in December of trying to sweep the New York Giants (Dec. 9) and Dallas Cowboys (Dec. 23) on the road and Tampa Bay (Dec. 16) and Carolina (Dec. 30) at home to stay in the playoff hunt.
“We are a desperate team,’’ Harper said. “We’ve got to act like it and we got to play like it. We definitely need every win, and we also need some help from other teams losing, too. We’re taking all donations.’’
Believe it or not, the Saints have a better chance of making the playoffs at 5-7 than they did at 0-4.
Only one team since 1990 — the 1992 San Diego Chargers — has made the postseason after starting 0-4. But five teams have reached the postseason since 1990 after losing seven or more of their first 12 games, including the 1990 Saints under coach Jim Mora, who won three of their last four to finish 8-8 and claim a wild card berth.
“We’ve won a lot of games around here in the past, and we just got to believe and don’t let any doubts drift in,’’ Harper said. “We got to stay hungry and have a little self pride, too. At the end of the day that’s what this thing is about.
“I think the last two Super Bowl winners limped into the playoffs (Green Bay 10-6 in 2010, New York Giants 9-7 in 2011), but they limped in winning two games. You got to get on a streak, and it’s usually the most desperate and hottest team that wins. We were desperate last night (against Atlanta) but we didn’t pull it out.’’
Before Thursday night, the last time Brees did not throw a touchdown pass in a game came in a 24-10 win against the New York Jets in Game 4 in 2009. Brees’ streak began the next game, when he passed for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-27 rout of the New York Giants. The Saints play the Giants at Met Life Stadium on Dec. 9. ... The Saints have the weekend off and return to the practice field on Monday to begin preparations for the Giants. ... Vitt did not provide an injury report Friday afternoon because he had not yet talked to the team’s medical staff. ... The NFL fined Saints DT Brodrick Bunkley $20,000 for kicking San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone in the head during the fourth quarter of their game Nov. 25 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, according to CBSsports.com. The Saints were penalized 15 yards and Bunkley was ejected.